We promised to follow up on the Taiga Forum with a few blog posts recapping the events of the day for those who could not attend. You can get a sense of some of what we talked about and thought about by checking out the #taiga9 hashtag, as well as the online notes from our keynote speaker, our morning panel and our afternoon panel.
In this post, I want to summarize the keynote talk by Christine Williams, Professor and Chair, Department of Sociology, UT Austin. Her talk was titled “Gender Inequality and the Limitations of Corporate Diversity Policy” and was based on her recent research on women in the oil and gas industry.
As background, Williams first summarized her earlier work on the Glass Escalator – a term she coined to describe the advantages men (white men, at least) often experience in female dominated professions. The earlier work is described in her book Still a Man’s World; and has been updated in The Glass Escalator, Revisited: Gender Inequality in Neoliberal Times. Williams also presented data showing that over the last 20 years, female dominated professions (including librarianship) have remained female dominated, while men in female dominated professions continue to earn more (on average) than their female counterparts. This is part of what Shelley Correll, Professor of Sociology and Director of the Clayman Institute for Gender Research at Stanford, calls the stall in the gender revolution. Ironically, this stall has been accompanied by a rise in policies and discourse about diversity.
One of the key messages from Williams’ talk is that the increased talk about diversity in the corporate world and in higher education has not resulted in any real progress. Citing a 2006 article on corporate diversity policies, Williams noted that diversity training is the least effective tactic for increasing diversity, despite the fact that it is the most common policy/practice. Mentoring and networking programs for women and/or minorities are moderately effective. The most effective means of increasing managerial diversity is through establishment of organizational responsibilty and accountability for increased diversity, usually via an individual and/or committee tasked with specific goals.
The main reasons diversity policies don’t work are that they are often more public relations strategies than actual commitments, and they often dilute the meaning of diversity to include many less consequential kinds of differences in ways that ignore power, privilege, and the historic exclusion and of women and minority men.
In her most recent research, Williams interviewed women in the oil and gas industry. There are no women or minority men in top leadership positions in the oil and gas industry, despite plenty of diversity propaganda throughout the industry. In talking with women in the oil and gas industry, Williams found that although the women wanted more female representation in leadership, they did not like the idea of targeted hiring. The women saw targeted hiring and promotions as antithetical to the ideal that the most qualified person should get the job. As Williams pointed out, assuming that targeted hiring of women and minorities conflicts with the notion of hiring the most qualified person implies that women and minorities are not most qualified; which in turn leads to and justifies the hiring of white men.
Mentoring programs and affinity/networking groups were only moderately successful in helping women and minority men advance in the oil and gas industry. Male mentors often treated female mentees like daughters, and/or had little in the way of concrete career advice. Men were often suspicious or jealous of womens’ affinity groups; while the women found them to be only moderately helpful in terms of career advancement.
The least effective diversity program in the oil and gas industry was diversity training workshops and seminars. Williams’ research indicated that much of this training simply served to reinforce gender stereotypes, which in turn were frequently used to justify the paucity of women in leadership positions.
The conclusions and recommendations from Williams’ talk were:
- Organizations should support targeted hiring and promotion of women and minority men, using legal enforcement of equal opportunity laws as leverage.
- Organizations should support formal mentoring programs and hold mentors accountable for the advice and mentoring they provide. Mentoring programs should include resources, training, and incentives for those who successfully mentor women and minority men.
- The content of diversity trainings should include more sociological perspectives, including lessons on power, privilege, and structural inequality.
I hope that the Taiga 9 participants (and those reading along here) found Williams’ talk helpful in thinking about how to improve the diversity of our profession and our organizations. I also hope that those of y’all who were there will supplement these notes with your own in the comments below.