Diversity leaders shine a light on systemic disparities

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Experts speaking at The Hill’s Diversity Matters Summit called for more transparency in addressing disparities due to limited inclusion of minority and at-risk groups.

The summit, hosted by Vanda Pharmaceuticals, pulled together experts and leaders with a focus on inclusion in all fields, from the workplace to healthcare and education.

Assistant Speaker Rep. Ben Ray Lujan (D-N.M.) told The Hill Editor-at-Large Steve Clemons that during his stint as chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee “the most diverse team we’d ever seen at the committee.”

“There’s only one way to hold us all accountable, release the numbers,” added Lujan.

But experts at the event agreed that organizations seeking to build diverse teams too often find a reduced pool of diverse candidates, driven by a lack of access to education.

“There’s a lot of people in the diversity arena who will say, ‘it’s not just a pipeline issue’ and it is not just a pipeline issue, but pipeline is table stakes,” said Susie Armstrong, senior vice president of engineering at Qualcomm.

And wealth disparities among demographic groups are a core obstacle to feeding that pipeline to create top-tier diverse professionals.

“We live in a world now where if you don’t get a graduate degree or continue your higher education you’re probably at a disadvantage and if you didn’t grow up in a family with a lot of wealth or you took on a decent amount of undergraduate debt, it’s just not realistic for you to go back to graduate school,” said David Sutphen, chief strategy and engagement officer at 2U, an educational technology company that partners with non-profit colleges and universities to offer online degrees.

Still, organizations that invest in diverse talent and hire diverse teams reap benefits to their bottom line, according to the panelists.

Elizabeth Marengo, head of diversity and inclusion at Nestlé, said the multinational conglomerate’s research shows women have 70 percent of buying power within their homes, African Americans are 30 to 40 percent more likely to buy from a company that “reflects their social issues,” and Hispanic millennials are “50 percent more likely to share something on social media if they’re bought into the product and feel they’re represented and supported.”

“When you’re able to connect the actual facts about those communities and how they influence the bottom line and keep that present, and then can layer in a second part of that conversation as how are they represented? We look at our marketing organization – do we have those people in our marketing department?” asked Marengo.

And Danielle Burr, head of federal affairs at Uber, said diversification is not a choice, but a need.

“Our customers are demanding it, our employees are demanding it and so it’s a real commitment that companies are making to diversify. And they have to make that commitment, they have to make it publicly,” said Burr.

While the lack of inclusion takes a heavy toll on racial minorities, women, members of the LGBT community and people with disabilities, awareness of diversity as an asset has grown in many sectors, said the experts.

“At least there’s an awareness that a lack of diversity is detrimental to your office, but that’s not to say we’ve achieved the goal of where we want to be,” said Tiffany Cross, founder of The Beat DC, a newsletter that covers the intersection of politics, policy, and people of color.

“Why wouldn’t you want your staff to reflect America? Why wouldn’t you want the ethnic diversity that brings diversity of thought to your team?” added Cross.

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