For more than 20 years, lawyer Vernā Bigger Myers has helped law firms and other institutions achieve a diverse workforce. But that alone isn’t enough, she says. Her book, Moving Diversity Forward, makes the case that efforts to encourage diversity are typically fruitless unless they’re paired with inclusion.
What is the difference between diversity and inclusion? I like to say that it’s the difference between being invited to the party and being asked to dance once you’re there. For a long time, many institutions and businesses have been trying to create diversity. But they haven’t really been successful because they’ve simply counted how many minorities they’ve issued a uniform, instead of looking at how many minorities have actually gotten into the game. We need to move from counting people to cultivating people—that’s what inclusion means.
Your book is specifically aimed at white readers. What led you to focus on this audience? First, I had to come to grips with my true feelings. I kept hearing white people say, “We want to help, but we don’t know what to do,” and I couldn’t believe that was true. Then I noticed how I felt when I was in a dominant group. For example, we live in a predominantly Judeo-Christian culture. As someone who is part of that dominant group, I might not know how to talk meaningfully to someone from another religion. Suddenly, I could see the parallels. There are some very well meaning people who are white and who have a commitment to diversity, but who do not have the awareness, skills, confidence, or comfort to go from well-meaning to well-doing. I wanted to write a book for them.
What’s an example of a well-intentioned but ineffective attempt to embrace inclusion? I’ll take one from the legal profession. Lots of women are invited into law, but the percentage of women who are partners is low. People say this is because women have children and take time off. True, but what the profession hasn’t been willing to do is change how it defines commitment. Right now, commitment is defined by the number of hours spent at work instead of the quality of the contributions made. If you are there physically, you count more.
It’s not that people are consciously saying, “Keep women out.” The norm was defined on a male model during a time when it was an intentional policy that only men would become partners. That policy has changed, but the path to success has not. This hurts the historically excluded groups that people say they want to include.
As a young person, how did Barnard affect you? I’m a big fan of the College because it lived up to what it said it was going to do: Create in me a strong person. Barnard focused on the fact that I was a woman and capable of doing all things. I had great role models—both men and women—who were dedicated to the success of women. Chris Royer in admissions profoundly affected me. We were different ages and races, and from totally different backgrounds, but she completely supported me.
However, I did not get affirmation as an African American. Role models that reflected my background, history, race, were absent. This was not unusual, because I was at a predominately white college.
What would you most like Barnard students and alums to know? I want people to know that there is no shame in this game of moving diversity forward. It’s really about how we can all get to the world we want.