Let’s keep it straight. Colleges and universities have never been leaders or facilitators of social change. All too often in these contexts, deep structural change is a protracted and ongoing struggle. Higher education instead has become preoccupied by achieving numerical diversity goals, with a level of attention that exceeds that of other organizations and businesses, including some sports organizations that claim to be epicenters of diversity. Colleges and universities are guided by compelling evidence of the educational benefits associated with a diverse student body, a rationale supported by the US Supreme Court’s decision in Regents of the University of California v. Bakke (1978).
Campus leaders signal their commitment to diversity by making curricular changes, encouraging co-curricular activities across racial lines, creating cultural spaces, and issuing public statements of support for inclusion. They can offer volunteer diversity training and workshops, craft diversity hiring statements, rename buildings, and post slogans like “Excellence Through Diversity” and “You Belong” around campus. Of course, these efforts should not be dismissed—especially when they make a campus more welcoming to those historically underserved by these institutions. But how far and how wide does this commitment to diversity extend? And is it enough? Current data shows that this is not the case.
As I noted above, the most intentional push on college campuses has been to increase the numerical diversity of students, staff, and faculty. Despite such collective efforts, however, people of color and women remain disproportionately excluded in the upper ranks of the higher education ecosystem. A report by the Eos Foundation and the American Association of University Women on leadership compensation at major research universities, for example, describes how women hold few leadership positions among the highest-paid medical center and athletics employees (12% and 7%, respectively). . The numbers are even more disturbing when race is factored into the equation. Women of color are vastly underrepresented in positions such as chancellors, presidents, deans, chief financial officers, and executive vice presidents: Asian women hold 0.6% of these positions, Black and African American women hold 0.8%, and Hispanic and Latina women hold 0.8%. . These numbers clearly show the promotion gap women of color face. Notably, Black/African American males and Hispanic/Latino males are also underrepresented and excluded, holding 3.5% and 3.1% of these positions, respectively.
Contrary to popular belief, this lack of diversity in higher education leadership positions is not an idle problem. A diverse and skilled talent pool has been evident for many years. According to a report by the Council of Graduate Schools, between 2009 and 2019 women earned the majority of master’s and doctoral degrees, and they outnumbered men in graduate school enrollments. Additionally, men and women of color have continued to show higher enrollment and graduation rates from doctoral programs over the past two decades.
These uneven outcomes for top earners are a far cry from the curricular model of diversity that colleges and universities so vehemently promote.
Similar leadership models exist within several major professional sports organizations. In 2021, a report from the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports found that 37.6% of Major League Baseball (MLB) players on the opening day active roster were people of color. However, during the same period, only one in 30 owners, four in 30 general managers (one woman and three men) and six in 30 managers were people of color. Likewise, only 15.3% of team vice presidents and 19.8% of senior team administrators were people of color, and 22.0% and 28.5% of these positions, respectively, were held by women.
The National Football League (NFL) has also shown little diversity in its head coaching and executive positions at the team level. In 2020, a report by the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports reported that 69.4% of NFL players were people of color. In contrast, only 12.6% of head coaches, 12.1% of CEOs and team presidents, 6.5% of general managers and 13.7% of team vice presidents were people of color. Furthermore, only 6.1% of CEOs and team presidents, 0.0% of general managers and 21.1% of team vice presidents were held by women.
Notably, over the same time periods, 40.5% of MLB assistant coaches and 35.6% of NFL assistant coaches were people of color—findings that have been fairly consistent over the past five years and two decades, respectively. In other words, various assistant coaches are in the talent pool and likely to be qualified candidates for managerial and head coaching consideration in these organizations.
When we consider all this, it is clear that there are shortcomings in the organizational reasoning and initiatives to promote diversity. The current historical moment has reinforced the need for leaders to move from diversity and inclusion to pursuing notions of net capital AND social transformation in the foreseeable future, particularly in relation to employment practices. This is especially urgent for those of us charged with organizing, leading and serving various organizations.
We know that a lack of attention to diversity, equity and inclusion in organizations can hinder innovation, problem solving and financial performance. Higher education and other organizations must develop effective strategies that not only cultivate and support diversity, but also focus on advancing equity up front and at every stage of the high-stakes hiring process.
The events of 2020—such as the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, and the Black Lives Matter movement—will not magically increase the diversity of top-ranking employees within organizations. Rather, leaders should embrace this moment and help create more intentional opportunities for people of color and other nondominant groups to advance through the ranks and ultimately achieve equal leadership representation at the highest levels of organizations. theirs.
To be clear, Mychal Denzel Smith reminds us that “representational progress, while important, does not necessarily translate into material progress.”
Organizations can and should take a fresh look at their current employment practices and develop and implement more equality-focused and data-driven approaches. They would be wise to collect deep employee data to measure and monitor equity in recruitment, hiring and promotion outcomes by demographic group. Research shows that sound employee data monitoring strategies can inform the creation of more just and inclusive environments over time. Specifically, meaningful data with benchmarks can highlight organizational strengths and problem areas, drive intentional and targeted action, and create commitment and accountability among hiring leadership teams.
These standards and dashboards will help monitor data collection and inform better management team decisions, but they won’t be enough. The norms, assumptions and underlying beliefs of a particular organization must also be addressed. As the evidence cited above reveals, the lack of diverse leadership at the highest levels of some organizations isn’t a pipeline problem—it’s a people problem. People are linked to inadequate recruitment, hiring and promotion practices that lead to unequal outcomes.
White men – members of the dominant group – have been in positions of power for generations, and whites hold 85% of senior executive positions in all S&P 500 companies. Gatekeepers – those in powerful decision-making positions, including major firms of executive search—tend to assess merit based on qualities attributed to dominant group candidates. This is a form of racism that creates more racism and inequality in the workplace. These shared cognitive frameworks among gatekeepers are unlikely to serve the purpose of increasing diversity at the highest levels.
Organizations that view candidates of color and women as assets, broaden their understanding of successful candidates, and openly integrate the diverse perspectives of all their members can overcome these structural barriers in the hiring process. Accountability for real change will also require champions who continue to organize, lead, resist, and actively disrupt business-as-usual practices. Additionally, it would be prudent for organizations to offer comprehensive mentoring and leadership programs to develop and grow the pool of qualified candidates—especially women and candidates of color—for senior executive positions.
In short, organizations must be part of the solution. Programs should include learning sessions on a variety of topics—for example, career goal refinement, interview strategies, and performance and data analytics—to better prepare historically excluded individuals for the hiring process. Also, these qualified candidates should receive ongoing support and campaigning to raise their visibility in the industry.
The current lack of diverse leaders at the highest levels of prominent institutions appears to be a problem of organizational learning within hiring committees and executive leadership teams rather than an individual problem or a shortcoming among candidates. Businesses and postsecondary institutions are spending millions of dollars on diversity initiatives, including diversifying their staff, but often to little avail. Until the gatekeepers wake up to new opportunities and understand the strengths and assets that candidates of Color and women bring to the workplace, organizations will continue to function (albeit not as efficiently) without some of the most talented, talented and deserving.
My next book is Organized Slavery: The Control, Surveillance, and Abuse of Black Athletes in the Corporate University.