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It’s time to end the insulting ‘business case’ for diversity

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Okay, I’m just going to say it.

I’m about fed up with writers, researchers and anyone else you can think of making the "business case" that explains the positive impact white women and women and men of color have on organizations. The very fact that so many people still feel the need to explain why people of difference are a good influence on organizations is, on its face, insulting.

Even at its beginning, when workers other than white males began moving into mainstream organizations and institutions, the business-case concept was offensive, a poorly veiled hurdle to our joining the nation’s workplaces. By saying that a business case had to be made, organizations not-so-subtly intimated that these hires had to prove themselves worthy. 

And now, almost 50 years later, we’re still making the case in one way or another. We’ve made the case for white women, African Americans and then minorities in general. (This was before we became “people of color.”)

It was humiliating when this practice started and it continues to be so. Yet, it is still a common occurrence in reports and other documents, which explain how boards that have women on them get higher returns on investments or firms that have managerial gender diversity have positive performance outcomes. And although people have literally been making the case for decades, it’s as if it were written in invisible ink, thus having to be written again and again.

Worse, the notion that we must demonstrate and showcase our value seems to have been adopted, even by those of us who are different. In fact, those of us who have had to show that we add value have pointed proudly to the various and sundry reports that justify our presence in the nation’s workplaces.

Stultified mindsets

I realized I was fed up as I was reading a recently published report by a woman’s organization about the status of women leaders. Somewhere within the first five pages of the document, came the obligatory business case. No, the report didn’t label its language as such.

There were no bold subject headers that said, “Business Case” — although some reports haven’t moved beyond that. Instead, the text subtly slid into the case, itself. It was a smooth transition, like butter. The report was giving a general overview of its findings and before I knew it, I was being persuaded of women’s corporate worth.

The fact is, we’ve been making the case over and over for years. But, it’s not the business case or lack of supporting data that is keeping white women and women and men of color out of leadership roles. It’s small-minded attitudes, conscious and unconscious, and stultified mindsets.

Even worse, when people of difference support the continued use of the business case, we legitimize a practice that imperceptibly undermines us by legitimating the need for the case itself. Each time we showcase our identity-group qualifications, we co-sign the notion that proving our worth is reasonable.

This point comes into sharp focus when we think of white men. Not once have I heard anyone make the business case for why white men should be allowed to continue running organizations. Not once have I heard anyone wonder if they are competent enough or responsible enough to lead, be in control of the money or have power. Let’s be clear. These are the guys who engineered a worldwide financial meltdown. And not one time did anyone say, “Hey, those white guys really messed things up. Maybe, just maybe, we should ask them to step aside. Take a time out. Or, at least have someone make the case why we should allow them to continue working in corporate America.”

At no time have white men, as a racial, gendered and presumed mostly Christian, heterosexual group, had to explain themselves and their competence through an identity group lens. In fact, regardless of their successes or failures, they are excused from the business case scrutiny.

I suspect it has never crossed white men’s minds, or the minds of most others, to question the qualifications of the white male identity group. Instead, culturally, we have assumed their competence, while feeling the pressure to prove our own. Rather than continually trying to prove we people of difference are qualified, let’s just assume it. Let’s acknowledge that the business-case is simply sophistry — a false argument that masquerades as logic — and then choose not to play this particular game.

Instead of indicating our worth through the business case, let’s just assume we belong. In reports, we can continue to discuss the ways in which we can grow as leaders. We can note the barriers that stand in our way. But we do not have to continue to say why we are good enough to be taken seriously.

In short, have to truly believe our own worth before anyone will do so.

Ancella Livers is senior faculty member and executive coach at the Center for Creative Leadership. The author and leadership development professional has worked with thousands of managers and executives.

Views expressed in blogs, posts and user comments are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Network of Executive Women or its Officers, Board members and corporate partners.