Gagging on diversity

June 27, 2013

"My boss said, 'I've never had a skirt work for me before. I don't know what to do.'"

- Shirley Engelmeier

When Shirley Engelmeier began her career in the consumer products business in the '80s, women were still viewed with suspicion, at least in some quarters of corporate America. "People thought you were a token placement," Engelmeier told me this week, "That you got your job because you were a woman." It took Engelmeier, the CEO of consultancy InclusionINC and author of Inclusion: the New Competitive Business Advantage, several years to realize just how tricky life could be for a hardworking, ambitious young woman in sales.

"My numbers were the sixth best out of 26, and my buddy down the hall was 26th out of 26th, and he got the job," she says of one occasion. Politics played a part, as it always does. She says men hung out with other men and asked other men (and their wives) to dinner at eachother's houses. As the quote at the top shows, her boss was pretty clueless about what to do with Engelmeier. She didn't get asked to those dinners, anyway.

"I love Sheryl Sandberg, she nails the problem [of the lack of women's advancement], but her solution’s off," says Engelmeier. "Probably two decades before she was in the workforce I was raising my hand, asking for a seat at the table, and nobody cared." 

You could argue that things have changed tremendously since, giving professional women today a much better chance of being recognized when they make an effort to put themselves forward. But Engelmeier isn't so sure. We met the day after she attended a conference at The Conference Board on diversity and inclusion "and some companies still don't care", she says. I think the word 'diversity' is an automatic turnoff to a lot of white people, especially men. They associate it - and Engelmeier backed me on this - with ticking off some box HR told them they have to fill, but they don't attach any real value to it. Engelmeier says she's always "slightly depressed" after attending such conferences when she reflects on how relatively little has changed since she started thinking about all this properly in the '90s.

"After two decades of managing diversity it hasn’t worked because we didn’t link it to business…it was seen as an HR talent acquisition frenzy...and we excluded white men – men think this is for some other group, so they feel excluded and terrified," she says. (This is something that came up in show 7, 'Non-white and female'.) Engelmeier's work is all about improving business results for clients through employing teams made up of different types of people - women and people of different ethnicities (and of course a cross between the two).

"MIT researcher Tom Malone has shown diverse viewpoints will come up with a better set of outcomes, and in his case he was saying with women on the team, than [if the team were made up of] the same like-minded geniuses."

Engelmeier founded her consultancy 12 years ago and how has clients across the US and the world. Yet, she says, too many CEOs still don't get it, even while they're aware of changing demographics in the US and around the globe, and the fact that women make 80 percent of purchasing decisions. "It’s not that complicated!" she says. "Who are the key employee demographics to help you sell baby food and design cars?" Back in her own consumer goods days, diaper brands were entirely staffed by men.