Wharton’s Stephanie Creary speaks with authors Laura Morgan Roberts, Alison Maitland and Rebekah Steele about their books on diversity and inclusion in business.

When authors Laura Morgan Roberts, Alison Maitland and Rebekah Steele began working on their books about diversity, equity and inclusion several years ago, they could not have predicted that they would be contributing to one of the best-selling topics of 2020.

In the weeks following widespread protests over the death of George Floyd, Americans purchased nonfiction books about race and racism in record numbers, trying to gain deeper insight into one of society’s most intractable problems. Maitland and Steele added to the genre with the February release of their book, INdivisible: Radically Rethinking Inclusion for Sustainable Business Results, which offers a framework for leaders to make measurable changes toward DEI. And Roberts saw renewed interest in her 2019 release, Race, Work and Leadership: New Perspectives on the Black Experience, a powerful collection of essays that explores corporate racial dynamics, which she co-edited with Anthony Mayo and David Thomas.

“Despite all of these different attempts to minimize, cloak, disappear, not touch, keep race over in the corner as this taboo topic, it still endures because racism still endures,” said Roberts, a professor of practice at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. “In the context of 2020, I think that’s the conversation we’ve been having.”

Wharton management professor Stephanie Creary, a diversity and identity scholar, invited the authors to join her for a livestream of Leading Diversity@Wharton, an ongoing speaker series. (Listen to the podcast at the top of this page or watch the video lower down on this page.)

The ‘Unfulfilled Potential’ of Diversity

Maitland, a business author and coach, and Steele, a business strategist and innovator, said they wanted to write their book because they saw a persistent gap in their global work with organizations across different industries. Leaders seem to understand the importance of inclusion, but they don’t know how to integrate it into every part of the operations and processes of their firms. They also don’t always grasp the difference between diversity and inclusion.

“If you’re going to achieve all of the impact that inclusion promises, inclusion has to be more than it is at the moment.” –Alison Maitland

“Without inclusion, diversity remains unfulfilled potential,” Maitland said. “They’re not the same thing. We felt inclusion was the poor relation that needed much greater explanation and needed much greater understanding.”

Maitland and Steele define inclusion as systematically cultivating an environment that enables “harnessing the collective superpower of diversity.” Inclusive companies are better positioned to conquer the “three P’s” of performance, preparedness and purpose.

“Organizations are under such pressure now to demonstrate that they have a purpose, and advancing inclusion across society is a really good way to do that,” Maitland said. “Business leaders are really paying close attention to all these things.”

Creary asked the authors a question about meritocracy — a system in which people advance solely based on their skills, abilities and accomplishments. Ostensibly, every qualified employee would have equal opportunities in a merit-based firm, regardless of race or gender. But the real world doesn’t work that way, Roberts said.

One of the first problems with achieving meritocracy is agreeing on the definition of what is fair. A laborer, for example, is paid less for longer hours than an office worker. And a college education is supposed to be an investment for future benefits, but those opportunities don’t always materialize for people of color.

“This is where part of that meritocratic ideal falls apart,” Roberts said, citing research that has found dominant groups are rewarded more and punished less than Black professionals and members of other marginalized groups.

“An unqualified view of meritocracy is problematic because it perpetuates the injustice that we say we’re trying to fight against,” she said. “We have to account for the complexity of calibrating inputs, outputs, rewards and penalties, especially in light of biases, mind tricks and institutional barriers that undermine the meritorious principles we desire.”

“An unqualified view of meritocracy is problematic because it perpetuates the injustice that we say we’re trying to fight against.” –Laura Morgan Roberts

The authors agreed that leaders must make both a moral and a business case for diversity, equity and inclusion if they want to get everyone on board. DEI has to be given the same rigor and commitment as any other aspect of business that drives the bottom line.

“Without that business case, it still gets treated sometimes like a distraction from what’s really important to the business. Or sometimes it gets treated as an addition that’s nice to have if we find time for it,” Steele said. “The moral case or the right-thing-to-do case doesn’t keep it centered as vitally important.”

Roberts also warned companies against pursuing a superficial business case that “profits from a little virtue signaling,” which has been common in 2020. These hollow efforts don’t serve much purpose because they don’t generate resources or rally workers around the mission and values of DEI.

Keep Talking, Keep Sharing

Although their books are different, the authors hope to provide the same guidance for people who want to create a more inclusive world. While both books underscore that building relationships and mutual respect are at the core of DEI, the authors offer complementary areas of focus for readers. In their book, Maitland and Steele present how to take a system-wide approach to inclusion, and Roberts’ book amplifies Black voices that often aren’t heard.

“Without that business case, [DEI] still gets treated sometimes like a distraction from what’s really important to the business.” –Rebekah Steele

“If you’re going to achieve all of the impact that inclusion promises, inclusion has to be more than it is at the moment,” Maitland said. “Everyone has a role to play. Everyone is responsible.”

Roberts, who is an organizational psychologist, said people have to step out of their comfort zones and take risks if they want to build bridges with others. She highlighted research that found professional Black women, for example, often take a nose-to-the-grindstone approach at the office. White and male colleagues can interpret that behavior negatively, thinking the women don’t like them or don’t want to participate in the social activities of the workplace. Roberts said it’s one of the reasons why Black women in mid-career often don’t find support, even though they have excelled in their work. They haven’t developed the personal relationships that are key to mentorship and sponsorship.

“I think what’s really important for us to recognize is just the level of inexposure and uncertainty that breeds anxiety when people are trying to build relationships across difference” she said.

Creary asked the authors what they would add to their books to update them after such a tumultuous year. They said 2020 has highlighted the importance of systemic action to advance DEI. The coronavirus pandemic, divisive politics and other hot-button issues have blurred the lines between headline topics, so everything must be up for discussion.

“My advice is to embrace the social justice imperative that has been illuminated,” Steele said.