Despite the business case for diversity, or perhaps because of it, organizations are facing backlash in efforts to achieve greater equality. Alyson Colón along with Sarah Kaplan, keynote speaker of the upcoming Radical Change Summit, explain why they believe that the solution will be innovation.


By Sarah Kaplan and Alyson Colón



It has become quite common for business leaders and even non-profit organizations and politicians to make the business case for diversity. There are many bases for this argument: whether highlighting the promise of better financial performance when boards of directors are more gender balanced, or arguing that firms will miss out in the war for talent, or worrying about the reputational and financial costs of sexual harassment and discrimination.

At face value, the business case for diversity has promise. If an organization can argue that an intervention will bring both social and monetary benefit, all the better. But equity initiatives predicated on the business case argument may place the fight for equality on tenuous ground. That is, if the benefits of diversity are couched in economic terms, then diversity initiatives will face resistance if these benefits are perceived to have not been realized.

When diversity initiatives are thus grounded in a business case, it may not be surprising that backlash movements respond in kind, arguing that prioritizing diversity is bad for business. Take for example, a Board Director’s comment to me recently. He said, “Well, we added a woman to our board last year and haven’t seen any improvement in our financials.” Or, look at the now famous memo by Google’s James Damore that circulated widely through social media this past summer. In it, he claimed that Google had discriminated against its (white male) employees by implementing diversity-friendly protocols. Damore argued that biological differences were to blame for gendered disparities in employment and pay, and that women were biologically predisposed to weaknesses like “neuroticism” that made them poorly suited to the challenging work environment. While Google’s response was swift – Damore was subsequently fired for violating the company’s code of conduct – we can understand Damore’s memo as representing a form of resistance to the business case for diversity.

Damore’s brand of backlash relies on the fallacy of gender essentialism: the idea that rigid gender differences exist between men and women and, in Damore’s case, that these essential differences make women inferior candidates to men for certain jobs. Arguments that use gender essentialism to justify the differences we see between men’s and women’s work and careers often fail to account for the role of bias – as it is embedded in our brains and also in organizational processes and practices.

We know from a massive body of research that we nearly all carry gender bias, and that this bias can lead to the devaluation of women’s contributions in masculinized contexts (such as the workplace). We know that this plays out in the evaluation of entrepreneurial ventures founded by women relative to those founded by men: study after study shows that women are less likely to receive venture capital funding. It is also true in career trajectories: women are less likely to receive interview call-backs, less likely to be promoted and often receive lower raises and bonuses. For example, a study showed that women need to perform at the top 10% of their peer group to be evaluated comparably to men, while average-performing men are 33% more likely to be preferred over similarly performing women.


“A study showed that women need to perform at the top 10% of their peer group to be evaluated comparably to men, while average-performing men are 33% more likely to be preferred over similarly performing women.”


Now, if you were to listen to people like James Damore, you could argue that this is because of some kind of essential difference between men and women. But, we also know from research that this bias plays out even when controlling for these biological differences. Take, for example, a study that asked a group of people to perform tasks on a computer; one group completed tasks on a computer named James, and the other group on a computer named Julie. The computers were otherwise identical. After the tasks were completed, participants were asked to evaluate the computer’s performance. Participants reported that the computers performed equally, but when asked how much they thought the computers were worth, participants thought that James was worth 35% more than Julie.

These studies poke holes in the myth of meritocracy: the widely held belief that the most qualified will rise to the top. The myth of meritocracy persists, not only because it absolves organizations from addressing discrimination concerns, but also because those who are in positions of power and authority want to believe that they arrived there on their merit alone. We all want to believe that our accomplishments are the results of our hard work, and therefore it is difficult for people to admit that some form of privilege has come into play in their own careers. The irony of the business case for diversity is that those in positions of privilege will want to double down on the status quo in order to protect their own jobs or own sense of accomplishment. Backlash may actually be exacerbated by the business case.

This evidence suggests that the best way to confront inequality may not necessarily be through a business case, but rather through a better understanding of the bias embedded in our processes and practices and how to change it. But how do we confront bias and undertake the seemingly insurmountable challenge of changing its impact on our work and decisions?

At the Institute for Gender and the Economy, we think the answer lies in innovation. Think about it. All organizations allocate resources – money and top talent – to innovation and expect it to result in disruptions and organizational change. Why not do the same with questions of diversity? This is the new conversation we could be having – turning diversity challenges into innovation challenges.

We are just at the beginning of seeing the potential of innovation for inclusion. The startup Textio is using machine learning to eliminate bias from job ads – where masculine words dissuade women from applying to postings. GapJumpers, replicating the results of blind symphony auditions that led to a radical increase in the percentage of female musicians in orchestras, innovates in hiring processes by disguising the gender identity of job applicants before they perform a job relevant test. Firms are experimenting with “neutralizing” their promotion criteria. Others are changing the job definitions, even for Boards of Directors, so that they include a broader range of candidates for positions. Amazon has recently announced an innovative new parental leave policy that includes the second parent, and using the Leave Share program, even when that parent doesn’t work at Amazon.


“Think about it. All organizations allocate resources – money and top talent – to innovation and expect it to result in disruptions and organizational change. Why not do the same with questions of diversity? This is the new conversation we could be having – turning diversity challenges into innovation challenges.”


As with any form of innovation, these innovations will require organizational change. And, one thing we know about change is that it can be uncomfortable. Research shows that working with people that are different than you can lead to problems like greater perceived interpersonal conflict, lower communication, and less cohesion. If we want to confront bias and create change, it will inevitably involve some discomfort. But research has shown that discomfort is an integral element of the creative process. As Professor Katherine Phillips, writes in her article for Scientific American “How Diversity Makes Us Smarter,” “This is how diversity works: by promoting hard work and creativity; by encouraging the consideration of alternatives…The pain associated with diversity can be thought of as the pain of exercise. You have to push yourself to grow your muscles. The pain, as the old saw goes, produces the gain.”

Making the business case for diversity implies to some that achieving equality has only upsides and that there won’t necessarily be any conflict or struggle in getting there. But, experience shows that to get where we want to go, we will have to become comfortable with discomfort, comfortable with innovation, comfortable with change. We will need to see how we are all embedded in systems that reproduce bias, and how we all benefit from privilege in some form or another. And, having the often-difficult conversations about these issues will open up all sorts of innovative ideas for achieving equality.




Sarah Kaplan is Director, Institute for Gender and the Economy (GATE), and a Distinguished Professor at the Rotman School of Management, University of Toronto. Previously, she was a consultant at McKinsey & Company in New York for nearly a decade. Author of the business best seller, Creative Destruction and more recently, Survive and Thrive, her research focuses on how organizations manage change. She tweets at @sarah_kaplan and @GenderEconomy.

Alyson Colón is Associate Director at the Institute for Gender and the Economy (GATE), and has a Masters in Women and Gender Studies from the University of Toronto.

GATE’s resources can be found at:


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