When Jesse Thorn's college radio show got picked up for national distribution by Public Radio International in 2007, he became the youngest national host in public radio history.
Diversity is an oft-stated goal for businesses of all kinds, but varied understandings of what it means can make achieving it a challenge. In news organizations and entertainment media–where different points of view are at a premium and impressions are important–contextualizing and representing diversity can be elusive. We talk with Howard Ross about what diversity means and how to engage in meaningful conversations about achieving it.
- Howard Ross Author, "Reinventing Diversity: Transforming Organizational Community to Strengthen People, Purpose, and Performance" (Rowman & Littlefield); also Principal, Cook Ross
Diversity and Context in Media
NPR’s ombudsman Edward Schumacher-Matos joined Kojo on June 4 to talk about diversity of voices in public radio.
— The Kojo Nnamdi Show (@kojoshow) June 4, 2014
As he was trying to talk about diversity and context, he told Kojo:
“And I am Latino and if I can say that the one major ethnic group that’s been short drift was the Latino one. I don’t say that because I’m Latino, I promise you. But they’re under-represented in the newsroom, whereas African Americans I see over-represented in the newsroom, but you can argue that’s because, you know, NPR’s headquarters are in, you know, Washington, D.C.”
The comment, out of context, was then scooped up by Twitter listeners, who ran with the statement …
— Elahe Izadi (@ElaheIzadi) June 4, 2014
— Gene Demby (@GeeDee215) June 4, 2014
— Elahe Izadi (@ElaheIzadi) June 4, 2014
— Elahe Izadi (@ElaheIzadi) June 4, 2014
— Elahe Izadi (@ElaheIzadi) June 4, 2014
— Veronica Miller ☀ (@veronicamarche) June 4, 2014
… before producers had a chance to clarify.
— Kyle Dargan (@Free_KGD) June 4, 2014
MR. KOJO NNAMDIWhen you see a group of people at work, on the bus or reflected on your TV screen and don't see someone who looks like you or has the same sexual orientation or socioeconomic status that you do, a group that otherwise highlights a variety of races, backgrounds and experiences, would you consider that group diverse? Diversity has long been a buzzword in business but without context or a goal to shoot for, it can sometimes lose meaning.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIHere to help us figure out what we're talking about when we talk about diversity is Howard Ross. He is a diversity consultant and principal at Cook Ross. He's the author of the book "Reinventing Diversity: Transforming Organizational Community to Strengthen People, Purpose and Performance." Howard, good to see you.
MR. HOWARD ROSSYou too, Kojo.
NNAMDI800-433-8850 is the number to call. You can send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. What does diversity mean to you? Has your understanding of it changed or evolved? Tell us how. Howard, we hear a lot of talk about diversity. It's a topic you're immersed in daily. You've written about the reinvention of it but sometimes it's important maybe to take a step back. What do we mean when we talk about diversity? Is there a universal definition we might agree on, or is it different to everyone?
ROSSWell, it's interesting because I think that the word -- I mean, like a lot of words in our language, they morph over time. And I think what we see is the word diverse being used now as a code word for describing people of color. So people will say how many diverse employees do you have, which is actually, you know, bastardization of what the word really means. Because ultimately what the word is intended to mean is a broad level inclusion of all kinds of people.
NNAMDIYou got right to the point, right to the point because race and gender might be at the top of most minds when we talk about diversity. But the notion can include variety of all kinds, sexual orientation, class, religion, socioeconomic status. As our society seems to grow more accepting and open, are we coming to a point at which the storm becomes so broad that it's beginning to lose meaning for some people altogether?
ROSSWell, I think like any other popular term, people have different interpretations for it. Some people when they hear about -- the conversation about diversity they think what that means is things like affirmative action, EEO and the like. And that's certainly one part of the conversation. But on a broader level what it really means is how does this -- the fact that our demographics are changing so dramatically and that we're dealing with a broad range of people, not just in race and gender but in sexual orientation, age.
ROSSWe know that the generational issues are a real issue, disability issues, I mean, I could go on and on, that they require organizations of all kinds, whether they're schools or businesses or hospitals or whatever else, to be sensitive how the behaviors that they're engaging in might impact different people differently. And for some people that requires -- for some organizations that requires in many cases a radical alteration of how they're doing business. Because if they're designed to meet the needs of particular groups of people, then it may take a very different way of looking at things in order to broaden it. And in some cases there are more minimal changes.
NNAMDIDo you think people sometimes default -- and this is what you started off with -- to using the term diversity when what they really mean is race or class or something more specific, but something that they are less comfortable broaching?
ROSSYeah, absolutely. And some of that is because it's a little bit more of a PC way to say it rather than say, you know, how many people of color do we have, how many diverse employees do we have? But some of it is because just the word association has become -- has gone in that direction. And it can be actually somewhat problematic in the sense that, for example, we coach people in our client organization to be careful of them not using the word that way.
ROSSBecause if you're, for example, creating a diversity committee, which a lot of organizations do now, they get a group of employees together to kind of look at the issue, is there -- do we have any dynamics that we need to address. And it's sort of like a guide team, if you will. And if you call this a diversity committee and at the same time you're saying, you know, how many diverse employees do you have, meaning people of color, then the message gets out that this committee is really for people of color. Whereas, good diversity committees have white men, they have white women, they have men and women of color, they have people from different ethnicities and different sexual orientations and every other difference.
NNAMDIWell, let's head straight into the fire from the frying pan. Here is Nikki in Fort Washington, Md. Nikki, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
NIKKIHi. I'm calling about the Michel Martin Show that was recently cancelled, "Tell Me More." And I wanted to hold this show up, "The Kojo Nnamdi Show" as the Michel Martin Show as really what a diverse show sounds like. So that when they're discussing world affairs and conflict it's not just focused on what we traditionally hear, the Middle East. You know, Israel versus Palestine or, you know, Russia and Eurocentric, you know, what's going on.
NIKKIBut rather it was through Kojo Show, through Michel Martin Show are we hearing voices from people on the ground that for some reason these same voices are never, ever seen or heard on the Sunday talk shows, or musical artists or, you know, authors. These are the kind of things that matters that I think we should allow real diversity to hear. And then we understand that they're not being...
NNAMDIOkay, Nikki -- Nikki, allow me to interrupt and make this discussion an argument. You picked two shows, both of which have African-American hosts. Some people listening to this broadcast would think that when you say diversity, you mean more African-Americans.
NIKKIBut Michel's show and your show, Kojo, doesn't only talk as an African American. I'm a woman of -- from the Caribbean. I've heard Caribbean people from there, I've heard people from Africa. Michel's show was the reason why, you know, I'm starting to read blogs from Mexican Americans. It's the reason why I'm reading books by authors from Asia. And those tend to happen more on your two shows than any of the other NPR shows that I've heard.
NIKKIAnd I think we need to understand that real diversity is not because a small group of liberal whites are telling us what diversity is, but the world diversity which is far beyond what a group of whole people think is diversity.
NNAMDIShe raises a number of fairly complex issues here.
ROSSWell, I think, look, I mean, I think that Nikki's got a good point which is that, you know, we want to broaden the conversation to include a broad range of points of view. And I think one of the things, you know, that's really wonderful today is of course you can go online and you can listen to news reports, you can read news reports from all over the world. I mean, I always think it's fascinating because I do travel outside of the country, as you know, Kojo, to do work, to look at how stories are covered very differently.
ROSSYou know, the story that's covered here in the U.S. is covered differently in the London Times or in the newspaper in Switzerland and the like. And, you know, you can usually get translations -- American -- excuse me, English translations in different parts of the world. And you can actually see the nuances there and how the story is covered differently and the sensitivity to the story might be different. And of course the self ownership that people have when they're reading the story is quite different. So the more we can bring that into our median and have a world view, the better off we are.
NNAMDII do have to interrupt with some new news, if you will. The Associated press is reporting that a federal appeals court on the fourth circuit, which covers Virginia, Maryland and West Virginia has ruled that Virginia's gay marriage ban is unconstitutional. Stay tuned for more details at the top of the hour. Let me repeat that. A federal appeals court on the fourth circuit, which covers Virginia, Maryland and West Virginia has ruled that Virginia's gay marriage ban is unconstitutional. You'll be hearing more about that in the newscast.
ROSSThe dominoes are falling.
NNAMDISo it would appear. Back to the issue of diversity, earlier this month NPR education blogger Anya Kamenetz created controversy on Twitter after she tweeted from the NPR education team account quoting here, "I reach out to diverse sources on deadline. Only the white guys get back to me" with a frowny face for emphasis.
NNAMDISoon after when criticism and outrage at the message began rolling in she expressed regret both at inadvertently sending the message from her work rather than from a personal account and for letting momentary frustration get the best of her. The inelegant expression aside, this can be a problem for many journalists. What are some of the underlying issues you see lurking in this tweet and the reaction to it?
ROSSWell, I think that you've got institutions in our society, and journalism is one of them, that have historically been predominantly white. And so the impression that lives in many communities, especially communities of color or communities in general disenfranchise people, because I think it's true for poor communities in general as well, is that the media is not necessarily here for us. They don't usually share our voice. If anything they may be patronizing towards us at times.
ROSSAnd the whole notion of how I'm going to look or sound or anything else through the media is anathema to people's understanding. And so generally speaking it feels risky. And there are some places in the country where people have -- and certainly some reporters and journalists that -- both broadcast and print journalists who have gone out of their way to get into communities and really create relationships and build trusts in those communities.
ROSSBut it's not a personal conversation when things like this happen. It's just a question of how comfortable do I actually feel in this interaction. Is this an institution that has historically represented me? And we know in fact that there are incidents where very specifically that hasn't been the case.
NNAMDIWhat struck me about it is that the responses to her tweet when she said I'm only getting responses from white men may be because she included the term white was that essentially she was talking about not getting responses from people of color. And I -- it occurred to me that she may have been talking about not getting responses from white women. She may have been talking about not getting response from gays and transgenders and other people who are considered minorities of some sort or another. But because of the assumption, is it possible that when we say diversity, some of us -- some people just think race?
ROSSWell, look, I mean, I think the whole diversity conversation, as you know, Kojo -- because this is what I talk a lot about in my book, the first book -- is we live in this conversational network of contention around diversity where we immediately sort ourselves into them versus us. It's the dialectic that we've created as part of our culture for discussing this. And it's a death trap for any kind of meaningful dialogue. Because as soon as we get into a conversation, immediately you have to choose the side you're on. And you're perceived to be on one side versus another.
ROSSAnd that, you know, doesn't encourage strong dialogue. It encourages discussion that is debate and argument but it doesn't discourage the strong dialogue. And of course we see the extent of that kind of conversational network of contention in some of our institutions. Now if you look at congress, it's a great example of a conversational network of contention. People are no longer looking for solutions. They're now just looking for what their point of view is vis a vis the other point of view.
NNAMDIUsing that example as a study in how not to, how can people effectively raise diversity concerns without fear of being accused of racism or ignorance or flat-out cluelessness?
ROSSWell, one of the things that we're doing is we're trying to reshape the conversation -- or dare I say reinvent the conversation -- in a couple of ways. One is to begin to understand that, yes, there are people out there who are haters and hurters and who have, you know, who have strong bias and all on a very conscious level, and all of that's there. But it actually is a relatively small percentage of the impact of what happens on a daily basis. 80 to 90 percent of the things that happen on a daily basis that differentially impact people are not because people are out to get somebody. It's because we don't even realize what our blind spots are.
ROSSAnd so what we found is by helping people understand that and using evidence-based research -- you know, science about the brain and the mind and how we make decisions, research that shows how those decisions play out in various different kinds of organizations -- that we can give people a context for looking at it outside of the blame game. Say that, wow, you know, I may have blind spots about this. And then the other layer of that is understanding culture and how culture may show up differently for different people and may misinterpret it as having value.
NNAMDIHere is Laura in Washington D.C. Laura, you're on the air with Howard Ross. Go ahead, please.
LAURAHi. I have a question. So I am a woman. I work in the federal government. And I sometimes go to presentations where, you know, the diversity person from my organization will put up a graph and talk about, you know, how we need to have more women and how women bring something different to the table. And yet I feel like, when we talk about women as sort of widgets, that something is sort of almost dehumanizing. Like what I bring to the table, I bring to the table because of my experience and because of the way I think about things. And I can't just be replaced by any other woman.
LAURAAnd it doesn't mean that my reaction to an issue is going to be different than that of a man. But I don't ever bring this sort of thing up because I don't want to seem like I'm anti-diversity. But how can people like me, who think of people as like whole people, and who are really hesitant to put people in boxes and to say, oh, a woman would react to this differently, or an African-American would react to this differently than a white person. How can we move the conversation forward?
NNAMDIWhy is Laura not a widget?
ROSSI see. So you don't want to be in a binder full of women, Laura? Is that what you're saying? Yeah, Laura, the question that you're asking is an incredibly important one. And I think that here's how I would distinguish. There are two domains here, both of which are important. But what can happen in the emphasis on one versus the other, whichever one, can be problematic. So there is inherently a challenge of representation or underrepresentation of certain groups of people in various different industries and various different workplace environments.
ROSSThere are environments in which women have not had an opportunity to come in as fully as they might. You just don't have as many women as might be available, that sort of thing -- it might be people of color or of a particular group or whatever. And in environments like that, things like affirmative action, in various forms, whether formal or informal, can still be helpful to break the logjam that's been created by years of the exclusion of those particular groups. Then there's a whole other conversation, which is, are there certain patterns of behavior. You bring up gender as an issue.
ROSSYou know, but it could -- same thing could be said about different cultural groups. And that is, that certain cultures, certain groups of people, because of their life experience, because of their backgrounds, may be more sensitized to different kinds of ways of doing things. Those are archetypical patterns of behavior. That doesn't mean that every woman in a group, for example, is more sensitive to certain things than men are, or that every man is less sensitive to those things. But it does mean that when we look at certain groups, we can see that there is a tendency for women's attitudes and men's attitudes to have certain patterns.
ROSSAnd there is research that shows -- and it's pretty solid research -- that shows when you have a certain percentage of diversity, whatever that is -- I think they're now finding, for example, on boards of directors of organizations that have a certain percentage of women, that those boards tend to perform at a higher level, that they tend to bring in different kinds of sensibilities. The challenge is that we tend to cartoonize these kinds of things and try to simplify them to the point where we don't get the nuance of that.
ROSSAnd so when we say we want more women around, it doesn't mean that women are replaceable. It just means that having a good mix of people -- because, by the way, the same research shows that if you have all women and no men, you just have the same problems. You still have -- homogeneity in general creates less innovation, less problem-solving skills and all those things, than heterogeneity does. So I can understand how it could be problematic.
ROSSAnd then the other layer of it is that if you're somebody who gets hired for a position and you feel like you're being hired because you're a member of that group as opposed to because of your unique skills that you bring, as you were describing, Laura, that can feel a little discouraging. Like, oh, you just -- you know, like I sometimes will have people call me and say, we really want you to talk to the leadership group because, you know, you're a white man and they can hear you say this. And, you know, I'm never thrilled to get that kind of -- I'd much rather them call and say, because, you know, we read your book and we thought it was great or something like that.
NNAMDIYou know, the reason we put you on the radio, is because when people see you in person they listen to you because you're 6'5" tall.
ROSSOh, that's what it is.
NNAMDIWhich is another aspect of diversity...
ROSSThat's another aspect, right.
NNAMDI...that you've talked about before.
NNAMDIWe're going to take a short break. When we come back, we'll continue our conversation with Howard Ross. You can still call us at 800-433-8850. Or send email to email@example.com. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking with Howard Ross. He's a diversity consultant and principal at Cook Ross, author of the book, "Reinventing Diversity: Transforming Organizational Community to Strengthen People, Purpose, and Performance." That part of the title, reinventing diversity, is what we're talking about, because diversity seems to be in a constant of reinvention. And so that is the subject of our conversation today. If you'd like to join it, give us a call at 800-433-8850. Do you think many conversations about diversity lack context? Or do you think they should be intentionally be broad? 800-433-8850.
NNAMDISpeaking of a lack of context, in media, of course, we depend on our listeners to trust us. But if they are to trust us, then they expect context. Now lack of context can also cause problems when it comes to gaining trust. You sent us some clips from newscasts in Chicago...
NNAMDI...reporting on the shooting of two teenagers on the city's south side. Let's take a listen to the version of audio of a neighborhood child's reaction -- the version that made it to the airways.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE #1And kids on the street as young as four were there to see it all unfold and had disturbing reactions.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILDNo, I'm not scared of nothin'.
#1When you get older are you going to stay away from all these guns?
#1What do you want to do when you get older?
CHILDI'm gonna have me a gun.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2Because I live right here and I don't want none of my family members to get shot.
#1That is very scary indeed.
NNAMDIIt's scary indeed if you listen to a child say, when I grow up, I'm gonna have me a gun. And if you didn't listen to all of what that child said, what was missing was all of what that child said, which is this.
#1When you get older, are you gonna stay away from all these guns?
#1What do you want to do when you get older?
CHILDI'm gonna have me a gun.
#1You are? Why you want to do that? You know what happens when...
CHILDI'm going to be the police.
NNAMDIWhat the kid says is I want to be a police officer.
ROSSYeah and, you know, the second clip was actually captured by somebody, Kojo, who -- in a smartphone, you know, they had. They happened to be watching the interview while it was being done by the news reporter. They captured the whole interview. Now, we don't know whether sometimes, as you know, in the rush to get a story, people will stop listening at some point to get what they need. And then we also know that sometimes people take clips to make a point. Regardless, there's a very different message in those two. And it's -- this is not the only, you know, example we have of something like this happening.
ROSSYou remember after the Trayvon Martin shooting, an NBC news program ran a segment which inaccurately depicted what Zimmerman said in a phone call. They said that he said, this guy looks like he's up to no good or he's on drugs or something. He's got his hand in his waistband and he's a black male. And later, it was found out that he only identified him as black after the police, the emergency person had responded by saying, well, what does he look like? What race is he? Again, perhaps to make a point.
ROSSOr a different interpretation of stories, the one that I showed you, I have here, is from February 26, when Jan Brewer, the Arizona governor, vetoed that controversial bill. And The Washington Post headlines for that day ran, Arizona governor vetoes controversial anti-gay bill. At the same -- virtually the same moment, the Wall Street Journal ran their headline, which said, Arizona governor vetoes religious freedom bill. So what do you read, what do you see, what do you listen to -- obviously shapes the way you interpret.
NNAMDII'm glad you brought that up, because John in Washington D.C. has a question about politics and religion. John, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JOHNThank you, Kojo, for taking my call.
JOHNMy question for Mr. Ross is, how do you bring diversity in religion and politics into the discussion so that it's not limited to race, ethnicity or gender? So a company has employees with different religious backgrounds and how do they set their holiday policy, those kinds of things? Could you speak about that, please?
JOHNI'll take my answer off the air. Thank you.
NNAMDIThank you for your call, John.
ROSSThanks, John. And this is another issue, you know, that hasn't come up in our conversation. But it is another big issue. And religion is absolutely a place where companies are struggling nowadays to know, you know, how do we talk about things? And of course we not only have the different religions, we also have people who are atheist or agnostic, who don't want to be identified with any religion. And increasingly in our world, many people who have spiritual practices which are very diverse, bringing in various elements of different spiritual practices.
ROSSThere's some -- first of all, there's some great folks at the Tanenbaum Center in New York, who are doing some wonderful work around this if you really want to get into it deeply, who know far more about it than I do. But the key here is to be able to create environments where there are ways where it's appropriate for people to have a sense of who they are, but at the same time to make policies and practices which don't discriminate against one person versus another. So a lot of people are looking at various different, for example, alternative ways to provide days off where holidays are concerned.
ROSSSo rather than have everybody take off Christmas or, you know, other days which fall in the predominant Christian calendar, that some people could work those days if they want and instead take those days for the high holidays. Some organizations are doing broader sort of personal time kinds of structures, where you can use that personal time for holidays, for religious holidays or various other kinds of things as well. It's never easy in any culture where you have a strong predominant group to make sure that every minority group has their, you know, quote "fair share."
ROSSBut there are some very creative things being done now and people looking at various alternatives to do that.
NNAMDIIn June we kicked up a minor Twitter dust storm of our own while talking with NPR ombudsman Edward Schumacher-Matos. As the network ends production of "Tell Me More," which a caller called earlier about -- a show that highlighted minority and some people would say diverse voices -- NPR was facing a lot of questions about diversity in its newsroom. When asked about this, Schumacher-Matos tried to put the staffing numbers in some context for us. Here is a part of his answer.
MR. EDWARD SCHUMACHER-MATOSI've done a -- some big studies on NPR's diversity, both in the newsroom and in their coverage, the voices on air and that type of a thing. And I am Latino, and if I can say that the one major ethnic group that's short-shrifted was the Latino one. I don't say that because I'm Latino, I promise you. They're under-represented in the newsroom, whereas African-Americans are actually over-represented in the newsroom. But you can argue that's because, you know, NPR's headquarters are in, you know, Washington D.C. So if you look at it at Washington D.C. population, it's under-represented.
MR. EDWARD SCHUMACHER-MATOSSo, you know, there's lots of different ways to slice and dice this thing. The real important thing is that you just get those voices on the air, I think.
NNAMDIOn Twitter, people took issue with the notion that African-Americans were over-represented. And you can go to our website, kojoshow.org, and you will see some of the Twitter responses to him. But we had him clarify it again, before the hour was out. But it points out the issue of context. How important is it for an organization, whether a public entity like NPR or a private company, to clearly define its mission as it relates to diversity?
ROSSWell, I think that that's critically important. I mean, I think, you know, we're way past the time when there's any question -- in terms of the research now I'm talking about -- that diversity has -- can have a positive impact when it's handled well. I mean there are some people who resist it. There's some people who still feel like every time they hear about diversity, it means they're going to be forced to hire somebody that they don't want to hire or something like that.
ROSSBut I'm talking about serious research now, academic research, which shows that when you have broader diversity, you have a better sensitivity to the marketplace you're dealing with. You've got different heuristics for solving problems, different ways of looking at things. And that organizations that manage this conversation well produce at a higher level. On an individual level, Kojo, if you and I both come in to be interviewed for a job, and somebody has a tendency to hire me because I'm white -- because I have an unconscious bias about that -- we might say that that's unfair to you because you don't get hired.
ROSSAnd it is, of course. But beyond that, if I'm the person doing the hiring, I may as well be rolling the dice as to whether or not I'm getting the better candidate. It's just poor talent management to make decisions on that. So people more and more in organizations know that. And I think that the challenge is, you know, how do we talk about it and how is it listened to in the public sector? Because when he says African-Americans, for example, are under-represented, he's obviously thinking statistically.
ROSSYou know, he's thinking, well, if we look at the percentage of African-Americans in the overall population and the percentage of African-Americans who are working in NPR, we, you know, the statistics -- my guess would be that they're slightly more than the 14 percent or roughly 14 percent.
ROSSIn some cases, that's valuable as just sort of a touchstone to see if we are on the right track, but it doesn't necessarily mean there's anything wrong with that if you have more. It's just a -- it is a good place to look. In some industries -- for example, some of my clients who are in the engineering industry may say, well we've only got 30 percent of women in the engineering corps, who are -- 30 percent of our population are women. But when you look at the number of people who are graduating with advanced degrees in engineering school and only 23 percent of them are women or 24 percent are women, that's actually doing a pretty good job if you've got 30 percent.
ROSSSo it is valuable to make those comparisons in order to be realistic in terms of what we're trying to accomplish.
NNAMDINot much time left, but Rachel in Silver Spring emails, "To find shows that reflect the real world, people of all ages, shapes, size, class, color, ethnicity, education level, try watching British TV. Especially wonderful to see older women of normal physical size with wrinkles and gray hair in lead roles." There is, it seems, a tendency for British television not to overly emphasize youth and beauty...
ROSSWell I think...
NNAMDI...or youth and attractiveness.
ROSS...it's a reflection of British culture, which is not nearly as obsessed with youth and attractiveness as American culture is. American culture is arguably way up on the scale. But that's absolutely true. On American TV, only 15 percent of the characters in American TV are women 45 and older, and even they're a much higher, significant part of the population. So that is a problem.
NNAMDIHoward Ross, he's a diversity consultant and principal at Cook Ross. He's author of the book, "Reinventing Diversity: Transforming Organizational Community to Strengthen People, Purpose, and performance." Howard Ross, thank you for joining us.
NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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