On Diversity and Measuring Sticks

There are so many adjacencies to Rebels at Work, and certainly one of them is the problem of diversity in the work place. Recently I was asked to write a post for another blog on why the CIA--my old employer--has such problems attracting and advancing minorities. You can read the entire post here but I've excerpted some key sections below.

As a Puerto Rican woman who spent 32 years at CIA and nine of those years as a member of the Senior Intelligence Service, you might think my experience revealed a few secrets for advancing as a minority at the Agency. But during my career, I was struck much more by the subtle (and not-so-subtle) barriers to entry and advancement that the Agency presented to people who did not come from a Western European background. Not all of the affected were members of officially recognized minority groups—you can be a different thinker regardless of your heritage or experiences. But the information CIA released on minority representation suggests ethnic and racial minorities have had the most difficulty adapting to existing cultural norms, both when they seek Agency employment and when they attempt to advance in the bureaucracy.

My hunch is that any effort to increase both minority presence and influence at CIA will falter as long as the subtle and not-so-subtle cultural barriers to entry and advancement exist. As the recently published Diversity Leadership Study concluded, the CIA does not consistently promote an inclusive culture. In my view, constructing a more inclusive culture requires the Agency to reset some of its cultural precepts, including some long-held, treasured beliefs.

One cultural precept at CIA I think harms diversity efforts is an American/northern European-centric view of the world. This perspective expressed itself in many ways, most of them quite subtle. For example, I often heard the phrase “American Exceptionalism” at CIA. Senior leaders would use it frequently, never imagining, I would think, how that might come across as patronizing to a sizeable percentage of the workforce. Even now, I feel compelled to add—lest my patriotism be challenged—that I am a proud American who believes the United States contributes in a positive way to the planet.

But I think that’s generally true of all cultures—they make positive and negative contributions to the world. It is perhaps inescapable that an American intelligence agency would default to the West as its model and icon of goodness. But Agency leadership could usefully audit their common phrases and mental shortcuts to remove ones that are egregiously Euro-centric.

Another example is a phrase I heard with some regularity from CIA officers that went something like this: “Everything in country X has fallen apart since the [pick your colonial power] left.” Although I shared my discomfort with friends, I’m ashamed to say I never pointed out directly to a colleague how such a remark might come across to members of a minority group – especially one from that particular nation.

It’s probably not obvious how such under- and overtones might relate to the lack of minority representation among CIA leaders. What I think happens is many officers struggle with being true to their own beliefs and cultural heritage even as they seek career success at the Agency. I know I did. The Diversity Leadership Study acknowledges the subtle ways in which this culture can impede the advancement of people who are different:

The Agency does not recognize the value of diverse backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives, nor consistently promote an inclusive, “speak-up” culture where all opinions are heard, valued, and taken into account. Some officers disengage because when they share their thoughts and perspectives on mission or workforce issues they are not considered. [emphasis mine]

In its survey of Agency employees, the Diversity Leadership Study found that 25% of minority respondents agreed there were aspects of their identity they needed to hide to be successful at CIA, compared to 15.5% of non-minority respondents. (The percentages for LGBT and disabled individuals are even higher, at 34 and 29 percent respectively.)

So many Rebels at Work face the same difficult choice: being true to what they believe or playing the game by the rules established by the status quo. Speaking of rules, this blog post on the male measurement stick that dominates performance appraisals is well worth reading. Here's a sample quote.

We use a standard that is completely blind to almost half the talent, and gifts in the world. And then we work very hard to get everyone to fit that standard. And everyone works very hard to fit that standard, ‘speak up’, ‘be seen’, ‘don’t hide your success’, ‘negotiate better’, ‘be more confident’.

Happy Reading!!