The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

We’ve gotten better at diversity. Now the challenge is inclusion.

Leaders need to pay attention to how they're leaving people out.

Before this year, just two of the 300 case studies read by first year Harvard Business School students featured black protagonists. (Photo courtesy of Harvard Business School)

A few years ago, a fellow dean pulled me aside to have an uncomfortable conversation. I had been telling colleagues about advice I received as a new professor. A mentor told me: Everyone who joins the faculty at Harvard Business School is smart. So the key to succeeding is to get to work early enough to have your choice of parking spots and to leave late enough that it’s easy to spot your car from a distance. In other words, our parking lot offered a simple visual indicator of how hard I was working. For the first decade of my career, I diligently followed this advice, arriving most days before 6 a.m. and leaving after 7 p.m.

The dean asked if I realized how terribly discouraging this story was to many of our younger colleagues — those with children, those who hoped to have children and especially female faculty members. They understood me to be saying that success at Harvard Business School requires long hours in the office, a schedule impossible for anyone who hoped to spend time with their families before school or in the evening. Passing along this advice made me appear insensitive to work-family concerns.

At first, I reacted defensively. There’s nothing wrong with praising industriousness, I insisted. It’s a value that’s deeply resonant with my immigrant self-narrative.

But after a moment’s reflection, my view shifted. No matter what my intention, I needed to try to understand how people with different lives and backgrounds were experiencing my words. And the more I thought about it, the more horrified I was by my insensitivity — and the more thankful I was to my colleague for pointing it out. I wondered how many other stories I’d been telling that offended colleagues.

This episode illustrates one of the dilemmas on our campus — one that’s apparent throughout higher education, corporations and other parts of society. Our institution, like many others, has made great strides in increasing diversity. But when diversity advances without inclusion, when we do not create environments where people feel like they fully belong and thrive, tensions can follow. More important, we fail to realize the benefits of diversity.

On campuses — including Harvard, Princeton, Yale and the University of Missouri — some of the most prominent protests of recent years have been about racial inclusion. While the specifics of each case differ, the underlying grievance is that even though greater numbers of minority students are being granted admission, they often feel alienated — perhaps because they walk to class past monuments and buildings dedicated to slaveholders, perhaps because they’ve been the targets of racist threats, perhaps because professors repeatedly mistake them for other students of color.

Only 2 of the 300 case studies read by first-year Harvard Business School students include black executives

The frustration and disappointment these students experience became vivid for me at a Black Lives Matter vigil at Harvard Business School. Our MBA students shared moving stories of how they had lived in fear of getting on the wrong side of authorities, or faced questions from people suspicious about what they were doing at a high-end mall, or watched people cross to the other side of the street when approaching them. Just when they felt that finally they would have nothing to fear or prove — now that they were students at Harvard — these types of experiences had persisted.

The diversity-inclusion gap also plays out along socioeconomic lines. Over the past decade, Harvard and other institutions have taken dramatic steps to increase financial aid, resulting in many more students from lower-income families on our campuses — a diversity win. Once here, however, these students sometimes feel excluded from the social life on campus, because they can’t afford the costs.

This may seem like a petty concern. After all, these students are attending a top institution that provides generous need-based financial aid. But that view is shortsighted. The benefit of diversity in education, or in any other area, is realized only when people genuinely learn from one another’s different life experiences and perspectives. If people engage only with those who are like them, diversity is irrelevant. Cross-identity relationships are not just crucial for learning, they also form the social conduits that help people find jobs, mentors and other opportunities throughout their lives.

For people leading institutions, the challenge in advancing inclusion is the same one I faced when using the parking lot story: Until someone voices concern or expresses discomfort, we often have no idea we’re behaving in a way that makes people feel unwelcome. At a panel discussion I participated in last summer, Provost Richard Locke described how Brown University, like many colleges, closed its residence halls and dining facilities during the Thanksgiving holiday. To Locke, this made perfect sense, since students typically go home for Thanksgiving, just as Locke and his friends did when they were in school. Then a scholarship student explained to Locke how low-income students who couldn’t afford to travel home for the holiday scrambled to find alternative housing and places to eat. Once Locke became aware of the issue, he quickly worked to address it, and Brown’s facilities now remain open.

In the past year, another dimension has emerged that also requires this sensitivity: politics. On many campuses, political conservatives feel as under-represented and alienated as any other minority group. Rather than reaching for a copy of “Hillbilly Elegy,” we should encourage students to be less fearful about talking to people who may have very different political views than their own. To enable this, one of our MBA students, Henry Tsai, has built an app called Hi From the Other Side that matches people with opposing political views, with an eye toward starting conversations. At a time when political polarization is hindering our democracy, this form of inclusion is of paramount importance.

It requires courage to speak up about inclusion issues, but leaders can make it easier by welcoming these conversations. I now routinely initiate them, reaching out to colleagues with different life experiences who can help me be more sensitive to matters of race, ethnicity, sexual orientation and politics, both in my speaking and when creating policies. These are people who are generous with me — who look out for me personally, point out places where I may have a blind spot and increase my ability to try to help our community become more inclusive. They function like an informal board of inclusion, something I would advise every leader to create.

At the same time, it’s important not to assume that bias and discrimination underlie every slight. Early in my career, when a white senior faculty member and I visited companies together to write case studies, I noticed that executives tended to look at and address him (often by name) during our conversations, while rarely doing so to me. Were they giving me less attention because I was the junior member of the team? Or because I am Indian American? Maybe there was a simpler factor at work. My colleague’s name was Bob. My first name, Nitin, doesn’t have a familiar American pronunciation. Instead of assuming I was witnessing bias, I began belaboring my self-introduction: “My first name is Nitin — as in ‘stick to your knittin’.’ I know it can be hard to pronounce, so it won’t bother me if you get it wrong,” I’d say. By speaking up about the issue, I reduced people’s fear of misspeaking, and they responded by making it clear that they intended to include me in the conversations.

The diversity-inclusion gap persists beyond universities. Corporations have done well in addressing much of the overt and hostile discrimination against minority groups, but they must recognize that subtle, embedded practices can often impede inclusion. An African American investment banker told me about a recruiting meeting where colleagues were asked to describe to a group of students how they’d been hired. One after another, they talked about the help they had received from connections who had provided introductions and guidance — and often became mentors once they’d begun work. The people telling these stories were showing humility, pointing out the role of others in their success. But to the African American banker (and others like him in the audience), the anecdotes were a reminder of the significant advantages of a preexisting network — something nonwhite and non-affluent job applicants are less likely to possess.

The biggest impediment to creating a culture of inclusiveness is the fear or stigma that accompanies conversations about race, gender, socioeconomics, politics or other types of difference. All too often, we think the risk of causing offense is so great that we just decide to stay silent. We may also refuse to speak up because we know that talking about diversity can activate bias, rather than alleviate it; this is one reason, despite companies spending millions of dollars on diversity training, actual measures of advancement for women and minorities haven’t moved much in many industries. The problem with conflict avoidance is that doesn’t make the underlying issues go away, and the conflict can then erupt in unexpected ways. Talking is hard, but when it comes to advancing inclusion, we need to heed the sage advice of Justice Louis Brandeis that sunshine is the best disinfectant.

To improve diversity, don’t make people go to diversity training

While creating a fully inclusive community can be a challenge, taking steps toward it can be easy. If a boss or a colleague or a dean is telling a story that strikes you as insensitive, have the courage to gently tell him or her. If a campus policy is making life difficult, make sure the person in charge knows why. Often, offenses against inclusiveness are unintentional, and building mutual understanding can lead to a remedy — and these changes can add up. History shows that large-scale social change usually comes incrementally, one small step at a time.