A recent study by consulting firm Russell Reynolds Associates found that more than half of Fortune 500 companies employ a chief diversity officer—a position that LinkedIn has described as the “job of the moment.”
After the murder of George Floyd in 2020 by a police officer, the pace only accelerated, with the hiring of new diversity chiefs in the Standard & Poor’s 500 index almost tripling. Across corporate America, including the legal profession where I work, leaders have engaged in one conversation after another about diversity. This should give us hope.
Except most of those conversations have either been bouquets thrown at some new program or lamentations about the tortoise-like progress of an industry or organization. Few touch directly on the hard issues—the assumptions and biases that continue to stand in our way.
I have learned many lessons as I have tried to confront those hard issues and illuminate blind spots. Three lessons in particular may be useful for getting us on the path to real progress.
Meritocracy Is a Myth
First, accept that meritocracy is a myth. Former Miami Dolphins head coach Brian Flores—who sued the NFL for racial discrimination on Feb. 1, the first day of Black History Month—reminds us that institutional structures and conventions often perpetuate racially inequitable outcomes.
Since 2003, when the NFL adopted the Rooney Rule, which requires teams to interview minority candidates for top coaching jobs, 127 head coaches have been hired; all but 27 of them have been white. The boards of directors of Fortune 100 companies—a pinnacle of corporate success—were nearly 80% white in 2020, while only 20% were racially diverse.
Do we really believe that merit alone explains these disparities?
For those of us who belong to the majority group, it is easy to be seduced by our own successes, to conclude that we earned them or deserve them. After all, we worked hard for what we achieved. That hard work was almost certainly necessary for the achievement.
But it is likewise easy to fail to recognize all the things that benefited each of us along the way, like the mentor who offered sage advice at key moments, or the early opportunity that accelerated our careers. And it’s even easier to overlook how lucky we were to have the freedom to fail, knowing that we would still be accepted—afforded the benefit of the doubt that came from being like others or at least from not being different.
Learning About The Past Is Necessary
Second, accept that our educations are incomplete. The Twitter-length, idealized version of American history is indeed noble: America was founded on the lofty principles that all people are “created equal” and have unalienable rights to “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
We learned in school that, although America had weathered some unfortunate hiccups in the past, its cause was so just that the nation’s expansion across the continent was considered a “manifest destiny.”
The truth is so much more complex and so much more difficult to acknowledge and accept. Rather than a handful of brief deviations from the path of justice, America’s history comprises hundreds of years of slavery, lynchings, forced marches, relocations, internments, segregation, and economic repression. These mere words mask centuries of suffering by millions of people only because they were born of certain parents or with a certain color skin.
If you combine 250 years of enslavement with another 100 years of Jim Crow apartheid, our country has resembled a participatory democracy only since the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, and even that milestone is under attack today.
Third, accept that we all need to listen more, a lot more.
Listen to the experiences, perspectives, thoughts, and feelings of those diverse people who are willing (and should be encouraged) to share them, especially your colleagues. And as you listen, remember that your experiences as part of the majority group are irrelevant.
Typical conversations often involve one person sharing something and then the other person responding with their own experience to show that they can relate. But if you are the other person, and you are a member of the majority group, don’t do it.
Don’t make the mistake of claiming that you understand just because you may have colleagues, friends, or even family members who are part of an underrepresented group. No connection is so close that you will experience something in life the same as someone in that other group. So don’t act like you do. Just listen.
The Path Forward
I know that some of my thoughts may take the bloom off our rosiest proclamations about diversity, equity, and inclusion. For example, at O’Melveny, this is the seventh straight year that our incoming U.S. partner class was at least 50% women, people of color, or LGBTQ.
During that same seven-year period, 70% of our promoted U.S. partners have been women, people of color, or LGBTQ. But we’re not taking victory laps. There is no cause for celebration. We have a long way to go.
I share these thoughts not because I doubt the sincerity of our efforts (or the necessity of hiring diversity officers) but because I believe we can do better and will do better if we confront some uncomfortable truths. Denying or ignoring the underlying problems will not make them less true or make them go away
Real progress will be hard. It has taken time to get this far, and it will take time to make the gains we strive for. There is no ready checklist of programs or policies that will remedy the assumptions and biases that developed over centuries. Real progress will come from open and honest dialog with diverse people, not about them.
We must be both impatient and persistent—unwilling to delay the urgent work that remains but also cognizant that the full diversity, equity, and inclusiveness we seek will require consistent, long-term effort. And we must never give up. I’m done talking now. It’s time to go do some more listening.
This article does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc., the publisher of Bloomberg Law and Bloomberg Tax, or its owners.
Darin Snyder is a partner at O’Melveny & Myers LLP and the firm partner in charge of diversity, equity, and inclusion. He is also a member of the firm’s executive committee. He identifies as straight, White, male, and is in his late-50s.