Do Workplace Diversity Groups Help or Marginalize?

I saw recently that Deloitte had eliminated its workplace diversity groups. I always thought of Deloitte as a progressive employer, so I wondered at the logic behind it, and whether it was a good move.

Some are saying diversity groups do more harm than good: “Companies that promote diversity by offering special programs to women and minorities will be accused of insensitivity to other marginalized groups: trans, physically disabled, and neuro-atypicals, to name just a few,” a report by Anthony Noto quotes Christina Hoff Sommers, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, as saying.

I’m not a joiner personality myself. In high school, I joined no organizations, and participated in no sports. My sport was daydreaming and watching old movies. I joined a sorority in college, and was on staff at the student newspaper, but I’ve never been one to seek out “affinity” groups. So, as much of a feminist as I am, I’ve never felt a desire for a women’s club at any of the companies I’ve worked for. What does appeal to me is being assigned a mentor. If I had a seasoned woman at my company who I could think of as a corporate big sister, it would be helpful. Such a person also could be thought of as a corporate guidance counselor. A person who’s not your boss, but who understands the strengths and weaknesses of the company, and what it’s like to be a woman navigating all those quirks.

I recently talked to my aunt about my workplace frustrations, and after I finished, she noted how typically male their behavior sounded. My sister’s response when I talked about my issues was the same, but in her case, it was posed as a question: “You only work with men?” They both picked up on what many women have noticed working with men, especially those of a certain age: an unconscious tendency to be dismissive and to have lower expectations for female versus male employees. Those unconscious tendencies often are heightened if the woman is young-looking, attractive, and soft-spoken and likes wearing dresses and skirts and makeup.

We’ve reached a point in our progress toward gender equality in which women are respected in the workplace, but only a certain kind of woman. My boss and his boss don’t treat all women in the dismissive, slightly condescending way they treat me. But those women aren’t like me. They’re generally older and have a matronly appearance (of course, not all older women are matronly). Or they’re young but gruff and prefer menswear-type fashions and have a tough, back-slapping, one-of-the-guys demeanor.

Every woman who is a good person and a competent employee is an equally great woman to have in the workplace, but not every woman is treated as equally great, even if they all are equally kind and equally deliver quality work.

There’s a wider range of acceptable personas for men in the workplace. A man who’s soft-spoken is praised for being gentle, or “humble,” but a soft-spoken woman is described as timid or passive. Similarly, a man who is young and handsome is not thought to be less intelligent, or capable, because of those features. A woman who is young and beautiful, and plays up her femininity with dresses and makeup (no matter how tasteful) is dismissed. Some men still have cognitive dissonance about youth, beauty, and intelligence.

They can accept that a woman is equally intelligent and capable as a man, but they still can’t get it through their head that a young, beautiful woman, to whom they may be attracted, also can be intelligent and capable, and possessing leadership potential. Or maybe they just get too distracted by the young, beautiful woman to think about intelligence and leadership potential.

What do you think the problem is? Is all of this just my imagination, or am I on to something? Have any other women noticed what I’m talking about regarding only a certain kind of woman being treated with equality in the workplace? Have you noticed the greater leeway men still have in persona and image?

A more accomplished woman in the same company, who has been with the company for years, knows the culture and the people you’re dealing with, can be a valuable resource. I don’t need a group whining session, but the counsel of an intelligent woman who has done the things I want to do, and has had to work through the same mire of culture and personalities, would be helpful.

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