How Economic Inclusion Can Lead to Success

The key to a better career for people of color is to address opportunity “much earlier than college or the workplace,” the author of “Profitable Diversity” suggests.

Anise Wiley-Little, a human resources and diversity specialist, lives in Chicago.
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Anise D. Wiley Little
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Anise D. Wiley-Little
Jan. 9, 2014, midnight

Au­thor An­ise D. Wiley-Little is a long­time hu­man-re­sources ex­ec­ut­ive, who served as chief tal­ent ac­quis­i­tion of­ficer and chief di­versity of­ficer for All­state. Now a con­sult­ant, she has shared a chapter from her 2013 book, Prof­it­able Di­versity: How Eco­nom­ic In­clu­sion Can Lead to Suc­cess, called “Class, Eco­nom­ics, Race, and Gender.”

Di­versity had an early found­a­tion in equity in re­gard to race and gender, but as it evolves, ask if it’s now more about poverty and class. As pro­gress with di­versity is el­ev­ated, keep an open mind by look­ing for great­er ad­vance­ments in the field be­cause a clear vis­ion of what is really hap­pen­ing around us is ne­ces­sary. Fair­ness is what is sought as we strive for great­er achieve­ment. Most every­one wants to play by the same rules and have a fair shot, but is that pos­sible?

Re­gard­less of race, where is crime most per­vas­ive? Typ­ic­ally, the most so­cial chal­lenges are found in eco­nom­ic­ally im­pov­er­ished areas. Re­gard­less of gender or race, whom do we find suc­cess­ful people spend­ing their time with? Most of­ten, oth­er people with­in their own eco­nom­ic class.

Ac­cord­ing to the Na­tion­al Cen­ter for Chil­dren in Poverty’s re­port “Im­prov­ing the Odds for Ad­oles­cents Ju­ly 2011,” low-in­come chil­dren con­tin­ue to feel the ef­fects of poverty throughout their work­ing lives, in­clud­ing poor em­ploy­ment out­comes. The United States is one of the few places that, des­pite the situ­ation you are born in­to, you can move your­self from poverty to prosper­ity. But those num­bers are small. In the UK, this has been ad­dressed through the Deputy Prime Min­is­ter’s So­cial Mo­bil­ity Strategy through the Busi­ness Com­pact, which en­cour­ages the hir­ing of those from all so­cio-eco­nom­ic back­grounds.

The Num­bers Tell the Story of Change

Is it time to think about di­versity in a new paradigm? The num­ber of low-in­come in­di­vidu­als is grow­ing in rur­al areas. The Rur­al School and Com­munity Trust’s re­port “Why Rur­al Mat­ters 2011—2012: The Con­di­tion of Rur­al Edu­ca­tion in the 50 States” notes in­creased rates of poverty in rur­al Amer­ica, some due to the grow­ing His­pan­ic pop­u­la­tions in the South, South­east, and Ap­palachia. Poverty over­all has grown in the South­w­est, South, and Mid­w­est.

The re­cog­ni­tion of poverty and class leads us to the next level of dis­cus­sion, which is to ask who is fo­cus­ing on these broad­er is­sues. How can so­cial sci­ent­ists and the gov­ern­ment be­gin to raise the pro­file of the con­ver­sa­tion so that we can in­ten­tion­ally shape the years to come? It can be said that the busi­ness case is clear, but when we have to con­tinu­ally jus­ti­fy the ex­ist­ence of di­versity and its ad­vant­ages or dis­ad­vant­ages, the busi­ness case de­vel­op­ment, which may be clear to some, con­tin­ues to hold an elu­sive prom­ise for oth­ers.

It’s true that the wealth gap con­tin­ues to widen between whites and minor­it­ies ac­cord­ing to the new census data. The Pew Re­search Cen­ter says the me­di­an wealth of white house­holds in 2009 was $113,149, com­pared to $6,325 for His­pan­ics, and $5,677 for blacks.

Poverty rates among minor­it­ies con­tin­ue to rise for all groups ex­cept for Asi­ans. Wo­men may rep­res­ent a sig­ni­fic­ant por­tion of the U.S. work­force, but their wages are still strug­gling to meet par­ity. They are still at 77 per­cent of what men make ac­cord­ing to the U.S. census in Septem­ber of 2010. The me­di­an earn­ings for wo­men of col­or, ex­cept Asi­ans at 90 per­cent, are even lower.

The Lack of Op­por­tun­ity

The dif­fer­ence is op­por­tun­ity. To af­fect this lack, it must start early, much earli­er than col­lege or upon entry to the work­place, which is where most or­gan­iz­a­tions want to spend their time and money. The only place that touches most chil­dren con­sist­ently is school, which is where change be­gins. This is where our in­vest­ment should be­gin. However, or­gan­iz­a­tions want in­stant grat­i­fic­a­tion by in­vest­ing in di­versity re­cruit­ing from col­leges or provid­ing in­tern­ships to the un­der­priv­ileged. With the lack of that in­vest­ment earli­er in the cycle, those without op­por­tun­ity start life at a dis­ad­vant­age.

Yes, some will pull them­selves up des­pite their life cir­cum­stances, yet oth­ers, even if they do pull them­selves to a bet­ter place, have faced a more chal­len­ging road. Cor­por­ate Voices for Work­ing Fam­il­ies, the lead­ing na­tion­al busi­ness mem­ber­ship or­gan­iz­a­tion rep­res­ent­ing the private sec­tor on pub­lic policy is­sues, sup­ports busi­ness and edu­ca­tion part­ner­ships that en­cour­age or­gan­iz­a­tions to start early in the pro­cess and ul­ti­mately im­pact tal­ent man­age­ment. Their re­search is de­vel­op­ing a num­bers-based busi­ness case com­pel­ling busi­ness lead­ers to take the lead in early de­vel­op­ment of a di­verse tal­ent pipeline.

So­cial Justice

There has been little con­sist­ency in the re­cent re­search of di­versity and so­cial justice. Some prac­ti­tion­ers be­lieve there is no longer room for so­cial justice in the di­versity equa­tion, while oth­ers be­lieve we must think out­side the box to ex­pand our un­der­stand­ing of di­versity. Prof­it­able di­versity can be seen as a meas­ure of suc­cess that provides an ad­vant­age, which may be in dol­lars, to a great­er good as well as in­creased in­nov­a­tion, ef­fi­ciency, or col­lab­or­a­tion. In or­der to move closer to any of these be­ne­fits of di­versity, we must fully ex­plore the ten­ets that may im­pact how we think about it, in­clud­ing the eco­nom­ics.


One could eas­ily ar­gue that the white per­son in poverty without ac­cess to in­dustry and jobs should also be a fo­cus of di­versity, rather than the Latino in­di­vidu­al in the sub­urbs of a large city who has ac­cess to the many pos­sib­il­it­ies of edu­ca­tion and cul­ture. In­sti­tu­tion­al bar­ri­ers still ex­ist, al­though cir­cum­stances can and do have an im­pact on the long-term ef­fects of one’s suc­cess. Money or birth­right can el­ev­ate your class and provide you the priv­ilege of ac­cess.

Con­sider the fol­low­ing scen­ario: In cer­tain situ­ations, a white child raised in poverty may have more op­por­tun­it­ies or face less scru­tiny be­cause of be­ing born white, but both the white child of poverty and the Latino child of priv­ilege each face unique is­sues. In eval­u­at­ing dif­fer­ences, shouldn’t all dif­fer­ences in­clud­ing eco­nom­ic be ex­plored for po­ten­tial bi­as?

The Eco­nom­ics

The premise of so­cioeco­nom­ic is­sues be­ing a level of di­versity does not ig­nore the com­plex his­tory of the United States or the cur­rent is­sues of im­mig­ra­tion af­fect­ing more than simply those cross­ing the bor­ders of Texas, Cali­for­nia, or Ari­zona. It is im­per­at­ive to ac­know­ledge mis­ce­gen­a­tion laws that placed blacks at the bot­tom of the class sys­tem, lower than white in­den­tured ser­vants who had lived peace­fully with blacks be­fore those laws.

My own par­ents, who were both born in Little Rock, Arkan­sas, were in high school dur­ing the time of the Little Rock Nine and ex­per­i­enced firsthand the ra­cial ten­sion, so­cial up­heav­al, and civil un­rest. Giv­en that we are not yet a “post-ra­cial” so­ci­ety as some may sug­gest, there must be an ac­know­ledg­ment of sys­tem­ic bi­as and overt or subtle ra­cism that im­pacts un­der-rep­res­en­ted groups re­gard­less of their class. This premise only al­lows that di­versity has many lay­ers of com­plex­ity.

Even armed with edu­ca­tion, nav­ig­at­ing cor­por­ate Amer­ica and the many un­spoken rules can be chal­len­ging for any­one, but even more so for one with lim­ited ex­pos­ure, ac­cess, or spon­sor­ship. Charles Mur­ray ex­plores the white lower class and the de­clin­ing middle class in his book Com­ing Apart: The State of White Amer­ica, 1960­—2010. The priv­ileged ma­jor­ity will re­main power­ful for many gen­er­a­tions to come be­cause of the wealth they hold, of­ten due to the com­plic­ated ac­quis­i­tion of land by their fore­fath­ers that blacks and oth­ers, even those well edu­cated and priv­ileged, will nev­er have ac­cess to. There is only so much prime ocean­front prop­erty to be ac­quired.


If you have already been ex­posed to travel, ex­ec­ut­ive role mod­els, and qual­ity life and edu­ca­tion, you may have a nat­ur­al, au­then­t­ic ex­ec­ut­ive pres­ence that provides you a head start. Fam­ily his­tory or leg­acy can trans­late in­to ap­pro­pri­ate con­nec­tions. This could also be in­ter­preted as the dark side of as­sim­il­a­tion, but we know that ment­or­ing is not enough; it’s about spon­sor­ship, who you know and who knows you. In most pro­grams that want to see the ad­vance­ment of the di­verse pop­u­la­tion, par­ti­cipants tend to be over-ment­ored and un­der-sponsored based upon ac­cess.

Most will need to seek their own spon­sors out­side of the struc­tured tal­ent man­age­ment pro­cess. These are the re­la­tion­ships that form nat­ur­ally when an ex­ec­ut­ive is will­ing to tell you the real story, speak up for you in the suc­ces­sion meet­ing, give you that risky as­sign­ment, and be there if you fail be­cause he or she feels a pos­it­ive con­nec­tion to you. When you are com­fort­able in a par­tic­u­lar circle of people, this may be an in­vis­ible ad­vant­age. People like you or with the same ex­per­i­ences or life­style can be drawn to you re­gard­less of race or gender or ori­ent­a­tion without real­iz­ing why. When we talk about hir­ing in our own im­age, it’s not al­ways lim­ited simply to race, gender, gen­er­a­tion, or sexu­al ori­ent­a­tion.

Everything prac­tic­al tells us that we should pay at­ten­tion to many di­men­sions of di­versity, in­clud­ing some that don’t com­monly come to mind. In an age of cul­tur­al di­versity, fast-paced eth­nic growth, and in­creased un­der­stand­ing of the LGBT com­munity, our so­cio-eco­nom­ic class is also a ne­ces­sary part of what we bring to the table that defines how and who we are.

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