I first met Laura Liswood at our Global Leaders Dinner in Washington, D.C., and was fortunate to be able to continue our conversation on the current state of diversity and inclusion, and the barriers organizations need to overcome before accelerating progress.
By Stephania Varalli
Laura Liswood speaks with the kind of confidence that can only come from years of being a thought leader in one’s field. With a long career focus on diversity and inclusion, she’s developed a unique perspective on the evolving landscape. Laura has authored three books, sits on several boards, and has worked as a speaker and advisor for Fortune 500 companies, the U.S government, and non-profit organizations around the world. In addition to her consulting and speaking engagements, Laura is the Secretary General of the Council of Women World Leaders — an organization she co-founded with President Vigdís Finnbogadóttir of Iceland in 1996, establishing a network of resources for high-level female leaders.
SV: In your latest book, The Loudest Duck, you speak about dominant versus non-dominant groups, rather than men versus women. Do you think this is a more effective way to approach diversity?
LL: It’s really both. It’s useful to look at the issues around gender, because there’s a lot of research around it, a lot of knowledge that we have. I also find that it’s important to understand that some of the dynamics that are going on for women are also going on for other non-dominant groups, and I think that helps us think about these issues without tripping ourselves under some of the cultural issues — that pack of baggage — that come with gender.
SV: You also use the term “grandma” to refer to all those things we have learned in our past that stay with us as adults. They come with us to the workplace, and ultimately create unconscious bias. Can we ever get rid of “grandma”?
LL: Can you ever get rid of it? I’m not so sure that you can wipe the slate clean of your background, your upbringing, and the constant bombardment of the media, but I think you can absolutely raise people’s awareness of some of these, and give people some tools to ensure that the playing field gets more level. Who gets heard, what gets commented on, what kind of feedback people get, what kind of job opportunities people get — you can have processes put into place and managerial practices put into place that will mitigate some of this “grandma.”
SV: It sounds like “grandma” would have a big part to play if you followed the old adage, “Hire for attitude and train for skill.”
LL: Often the framing of “cultural fit” is just another substitute language for “Do I like this person?” or “Would I find it easy to work with this person?” There’s virtually no hiring system, other than a complete redacting of a glut of information, that you aren’t going to be projecting your own beliefs onto. So even if we say we’re “hiring for attitude” and that we can develop skill set, as an individual I’m going to sort what I think is the “right attitude” — and not surprisingly the right attitude has a tendency to look like my attitude. It’s one of those tricky things that most companies haven’t quite gotten a handle on.
SV: Can training of a company’s hiring managers help to improve the issue of unconscious bias?
LL: Many people in many companies do give hiring people lots of training — what to look out for, what to steer against — and I think those are helpful. It does raise people’s awareness about some of the dynamics and thought processes that they might have. I’m beginning to think we need a lot more of what is known as people’s analytics — systematic ways of evaluating people’s resumes, based on a computer program rather than individuals — at least for the first cut. It’s not like you’re trying to screen out people as much as you end up screening in people. You are not deliberately eliminating someone, you are subtly advantaging someone. That gets a little trickier. The evidence is pretty clear on that. The diagnosis and solution isn’t so clear yet.
SV: Many organizations are starting to openly publish their diversity numbers. Can that help solve the problem?
LL: I think those are precursors. You do need to have some transparency around this. You do need to know what your starting point is. You do need to have some sense of what’s the magnitude from a numerical perspective. A lot of companies get stuck in that, and then forget that you can bring in all these people, but if you don’t actually get people to understand how to use the diversity, how to maximize the diversity, how to include people, how to not have an unconscious bias when we bring people into organizations, then you’re less than halfway there. It’s a necessary but not sufficient step.
It’s enormously important, for women, for other historically out-of-power groups, to be able to say, “I can see myself doing that.” It’s really hard for anyone to have the kind of imagination to project themselves into something when they don’t see anybody who looks like them.
SV: So who plays the key role in changing the mindset of an organization? A diversity officer? The leadership team? The media?
LL: It’s a combination of all these things. You have to catch people at whatever point they are going to be open and in whatever medium is going to appeal to them.
SV: You give a very unique example in your book of how mindsets can be changed, featuring Iceland’s Vigdís Finnbogadóttir, the first and longest-sitting female president in the world. Halfway through her 16 years in office, she noticed that children below eight-years-old often believed only a woman could be president.
LL: It’s enormously important, for women, for other historically out-of-power groups, to be able to say, “I can see myself doing that.” It’s really hard for anyone to have the kind of imagination to project themselves into something when they don’t see anybody who looks like them. That is one of the challenges of diversity. We are constantly trying to create this diverse workplace, but then the people whom you’re trying to attract look up to the top of the organization and don’t see people who look like them, and think, ‘I’m not sure I want to work here because I don’t see anyone that looks like me.’ We all need role models. One of the challenges is for dominant group members, for men — white men particularly — they’re going to have this whole panoply of people who look like them, who have the same background, who made it, and they can aspire to that. It takes a much bigger leap of imagination for someone who doesn’t look like that to think, ‘I can get there, too.’
SV: Can we put any hope in this next generation? Will time bring about a natural shift?
LL: I’m not a big fan of the natural, because I think if there were natural change you would have seen more change than we’re seeing now. The World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap Report looks at the gaps in health, education, economic participation, and political participation across 140 countries. And the gaps are pretty much closing on education and healthcare. Not for all countries, but for those being measured. What’s not closing are the gaps in economic participation and political participation. I think a lot of people had this notion that, okay, we’ll get girls healthy, we’ll educate them, and then naturally they’ll get into the workplace, naturally they’ll get to quality political representation. Well, it turns out there’s essentially nothing natural about it. They aren’t correlating. So, I’m a little skeptical of the natural, because at that rate I think we’re going to be going at this for a very long time.
SV: How long do you think it will take to get to gender parity?
LL: The World Economic Forum has said it’s going to take at least 80 more years at the rate we’re going to get gender parity. National Women’s Political Caucus has said up to 250 more years to get to 50/50 in terms of women in political representation. I’ve read that it’s going to take 100 years to get women into parity in the c-suite. So, you choose: 80 years, 100 years, 250 years. Let’s just put it this way: not ten. Unless we can figure out a way to hurry history, I think we’re plodding along at the same trajectory we’ve been on.