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Minority report

By Claire Scobie

A satirical website that rents out “minority” speakers to enhance the appearance of corporate diversity has been a hit – with some mistaking it for a genuine business.

Is the exec team the opposite of your multiethnic workforce? Or perhaps you’re organising a diversity dinner and you realise to your horror your speakers are male, pale and stale? Don’t fret. Rent-A-Minority offers “a minority for every occasion”.

Whether it’s a “cheerful woman of colour” or “an intellectual black guy”, there’s a solution only a few strokes away. Rent-A-Minority claims to solve all your “I’m racist but I don’t want to look racist” needs.

This web-based satirical platform rentaminority.com is wincingly realistic. In fact so realistic that, after its March launch the site went viral, with half a million visits and 1,000 submissions – 150 of those were genuine. Ouch. The spoof is the brainchild of New York-based freelance writer Arwa Mahdawi, who used to work full time as a strategist for ad agencies and who is now: “Chief Hopes and Dreams Officer & Chief Minority Officer of rentaminority.com: a revolutionary new service bringing diversity on demand!”

The intention behind her “Uber for diversity” is to shine the spotlight on the yawning chasm between slick marketing and stock-photos peppered with minority faces on one hand, and boardroom reality in the tech and media industries.

“I wanted to make a point about the superficial way that companies have approached the issue of diversity, but do so in a humorous way,” Mahdawi says.

“There isn’t much humour in the discussion around diversity – it’s something people tend to tiptoe around.” Mahdawi, who identifies as half-English half-Palestinian, based rentaminority.com on Uber’s old design. Since its launch she’s had about 500 applications from individuals who want to become a minority for hire. She’s not surprised.

“Life has become a lot more about instantaneous gratification. You can get everything on demand and you expect everything on demand. So it seemed to me that a company like this might actually be a logical output of our time.” And the truth is, despite the serious need for diversity, with reports from McKinsey that show how more diverse companies are more successful and evidence from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that mixed-sex teams produce more creative solutions, the subject can become oh too worthy.

In fact, over a decade ago, the term “diversity fatigue” was first coined in American TV newsrooms to describe this phenomenon.

Feeling it

In his book Driven by Difference: How Great Companies Fuel Innovation through Diversity, David Livermore describes overhearing one man say to another in the gym: “Tomorrow I have to go to a diversity-training workshop.” To which came the reply: “Oh God. That’s right up there with getting a root canal.”

Livermore, president of the Cultural Intelligence Centre in Michigan, says he regularly encounters diversity fatigue across all industries, especially in North America, although less in the Asia-Pacific region, which has gone through fewer waves of diversity and inclusion (D&I) programs. So is there a split between what people say publicly and how they feel privately?

“Yes. I think most individuals, particularly senior management, appreciate that it is an important value and topic. But the frustrations are more apt to be voiced behind closed doors.

“I’ve done countless interviews with individuals in the workplace over the past decade and, once we get beyond the politically correct answers, many individuals say something similar to what I heard at the gym.”

Diversity training, if mishandled, can lead to feelings of shame or cause people to become so concerned about saying the wrong thing they become paralysed and don’t say anything at all.

According to a recent Harvard Business Review article, a longitudinal study of over 700 American companies found that diversity training programmes had little positive effect and “may even decrease representation of black women”.

Kumbaya

Livermore also points to the “kumbaya” syndrome. “People grow fatigued from the diversity conversation because they perceive it as little more than a soft, touchyfeely topic filled with artificial kumbuya moments focused on everyone getting along,” he says. Indeed, it’s this point that Rent-A-Minority makes so painfully obvious.

The reality is, diversity is not a quick fix. As Mahdawi knows from personal experience, companies may give the appearance of doing the right thing, when little changes within the business culture.

“A straight white guy who is very high up in advertising asked me if it was an advantage being brown and female. He was suggesting that I’d got to where I was through tokenism and positive discrimination,” says Mahdawi.

“It shocked me that a guy this smart could think that and it made me so frustrated about how we’ve approached the diversity debate.

“You’re put in an impossible situation as a minority because, on the one hand, there are still numerous barriers to institutional equality that aren’t being addressed. And on the other hand everyone pins down your achievements to tokenism.”

ROI

Diversity fatigue is also a resource issue. Livermore cites numerous examples of companies, such as banks, that are reducing diversity initiatives because they aren’t seeing a ROI.

“This is the key cause of diversity fatigue. It’s not that most people are saying, ‘let’s move on… we’re adequately diverse’. It’s that they can’t see how this has played any role in improving performance and thus the ROI is suspect.”

Marcus Laithwaite, Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer at PwC, Australia, says that, while he’s heard of diversity fatigue, it isn’t something he’s encountered at PwC.

“I’d be naive to think that it doesn’t occur but it boils down to how you implement your D&I strategy. You need to make sure you’ve won the hearts and minds of all staff… If you do this properly you don’t have winners and losers, you only have winners.

“Diversity is not around what you can and can’t say. I think that’s frankly unhelpful and not the way you should be approaching it in 2016.”

Laithwaite says the company’s Western Sydney office is one of the fastest growing parts of the business and also one of the most culturally diverse.

“It is a wonderful mix-up of all sorts of cultures. The office has a different vibe: it’s fun and exciting.” A reflection, thinks Laithwaite, of the “mix and mash up of different thoughts, religions, heritage and social backgrounds”.

Cultural intelligence

Livermore, however, suggests that diversity on its own does not lead to innovation. In fact it can be harder to create trust when you have a diverse team – given that in general we associate with people who are like, rather than different to, us. The Great British Diversity Experiment, which brought together 140 diverse people from the communications industry, to work on a month-long brief and be ethnographically studied during the process, found that because of the many views expressed, ideas “develop via meritocracy, and not quick buy-in from the dominant cultural voice”.

Livermore argues that “high cultural intelligence” is the key ingredient if diversity is going to lead to innovation.

“Cultural intelligence (CQ ) is the capability to function effectively in culturally diverse situations,” he writes.

“When CQ levels are low, diverse teams underperform homogenous teams. But when CQ levels are high, diverse teams outperform homogenous teams on several measurements – productivity, employee engagement, profitability and innovation.”

And what about the issue of promotions being made on race rather than merit? Known as “white fragility” in the US, Livermore sees this as a contributor to diversity fatigue.

“Caucasians are fearful of even engaging in the diversity conversation, much less the one of privilege, because it can feel like being part of the dominant culture has suddenly become a liability. The stats show we have a long way to go before we can truly say that white men are being marginalised.

“CQ has to work in all directions. Everyone needs it.” Given the reality of an increasingly globalised market (Brexit aside), diversity is here to stay. Mahdawi believes
that companies should be investing in real ways to make themselves more diverse such as recruitment techniques that skirt unconscious bias, like blind auditions, rather than “simply trying to tick a couple of boxes”. With her savvy sense of humour, she also urges people to use her site “as an icebreaker to start difficult conversations”.

Surely, isn’t it better to approach a serious subject with “a bit of levity” rather than fear or fatigue?

Claire Scobie is a journalist, author and story consultant for business.

This article was originally published in the August 2016 edition of acuity.