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Minorities underrepresented in Hub corporate leadership

Martin Desmarais

While people of color make up more than 50 percent of Boston’s population, the city’s corporate leadership remains overwhelmingly white, according to a University of Massachusetts, Boston study.

Only 3.4 percent people of color held jobs at the senior executive level and 9.4 percent held jobs at the mid-level manager level, while 55 percent held jobs at the professional level and 32 percent held jobs at the lowest paying occupations, such as administrative support workers, laborers and service workers, the study found.

The study was conducted by Commonwealth Compact, a project organized out of the UMass Boston, has been studying the diversity of Boston’s workplace since 2008 and has released three separate studies of its findings. The most recent study, released in 2013 and titled “Managing Up: Managing Diversity in Challenging Times,” covered a five year period to look at the most recent trends in corporate diversity. The study examined about 280 companies with almost 200,000 employees.

The study also examined which industries are best at having people of color in high-level positions and found that the educational sector had the most people of color in senior management at 6 percent, while the health care industry and the government sector only had 1 percent people of color in executive positions. These findings are similar to findings from previous Commonwealth Compact studies as well.

Georgianna Meléndez, executive director of the Commonwealth Compact, said that what the organization’s studies show is that the real battle line for increasing diversity in Boston is not at the entry level, but at the executive level, which she calls the C-suite jobs — executives, vice presidents, directors and board members.

According to Meléndez, companies are often shocked when they report strong numbers of diversity in hiring but then find out from these employees that they do not feel included in the company or supported to move into leadership positions and would leave the company for other similar or higher-paying jobs immediately.

“Hiring people and paying them well is not enough,” Meléndez said. “When you bring someone in you have to onboard them properly — find out how they fit in with what they do and listen to them and include them in key decisions.

“No organization will gain anything if they appoint people based on their race or gender and not look at how their skillset fits. We don’t think that tokenism works,” she added. “Companies like to think that everybody has the opportunity to move up — but that is really not true.”

The Commonwealth Compact is also part of the Inclusive Boston Alliance — along with groups such as the Urban League, NAACP and the Salvation Army — which is an organization looking at how Mayor Walsh prioritizes issues that impact communities of color and tracking how he delivers on his promise to have a 50 percent diverse administration.

“The goal is over time it will have an impact and we will see some changes at the C-suite level,” Meléndez said. “People still perceive us as a racist state and that has a lot to do with who is in power.

“We are fighting the perception because we want people to live here. I live here and I love it,” she added.

The Partnership, a Boston company that helps professionals of color find high level jobs, has been fighting the diversity battle for over two decades, working with several thousand job seekers and several hundred of the city’s biggest companies. Carol Fulp, president and CEO of The Partnership, says that the message the company sends is about the importance of diversity, but also about its necessity in order to compete in business today.

“We approach the issue of diversity from a global marketplace perspective. This is about business. If you want to market globally you have to have individuals in your company that understand these different cultures,” Fulp said. “From a business perspective your workforce and customers are going to be diverse so it only makes sense that your workforce will reflect that diversity.

Fulp points out that estimates suggest that by 2050 the United States population will be 30 percent Latino, 13 percent African American and 54 percent people of color overall. The Partnership tells businesses they had better be prepared to reflect the makeup of the population in their workforces.

However, she also points out that Boston already reflects the future diversity of the the United States as it is now a majority minority city — and the business world in the city has nowhere near caught up.

One thing she cautions against, like Meléndez, is thinking that just hiring people of color to entry-level positions in a company is enough. She says that large corporations across all industries do a pretty good job of diverse hiring at the lower levels of a company; the problem is diversity at the executive level and, particularly, providing an inclusive environment in which workers of color can move up the corporate ladder.

Companies also come to The Partnership to help them improve their workplace environment to support diversity, and Fulp says the first thing the organization does is suggest leadership development that supports people of color at all levels of a company. “Our goal is to have programming at every level of the organization, from interns all the way up to senior executives,” she added.

“Yes, Boston is a majority minority city and we certainly see that from the individuals in corporations,” Fulp said. “We want to make sure that people of color have very strong leadership skills to be able to move up the corporate ladder.

“It is like a pyramid, everybody comes in qualified with strong technical skills but who moves up that pyramid to the top are those with leadership skills.”

According to Fulp, more and more companies are starting to get the message about diversity and its importance, not just as a social justice issue but as a business issue that is necessary for a company to thrive.

“I think diversity is just good management,” Fulp said. “It is understanding that in order to have good innovation I can’t have people who all look alike at the table — I have to have different perspectives. You want to attract the best and the brightest of all ethnicities.

“Boston has had a tough history as we all know. But we are now a majority minority city and we are really at a turning point and that is why all of us need to collaborate together,” she added.

As suggested by the Commonwealth Compact studies, and by others that track diversity in Boston, one sector that has had success in delivering on diversity is higher education.

Schools including Boston College, Cambridge College, Emerson College, UMass Boston and Wheelock College all have people of color in high profile positions.

Emerson joined this list in July 2011 when Marvin Lee Pelton became president of the college. Pelton has driven diversity efforts at the school not only with his presence but also by launching the college’s Inclusive Excellence Initiative a year into his tenure. This initiative gave a directive to the school to improve and establish a university-wide effort for diversity and inclusion.

Sylvia Spears, Emerson’s vice president of diversity and inclusion, said Pelton’s support from the top gives her the backing to take action that makes the college’s diversity efforts more than just a policy written down somewhere and have actually changed the faces — both faculty and students — that call Emerson home.

“I think Emerson is doing something that not many institutions are doing by putting in place the structures that will help the greatest growth in this area,” Spears said. “I think leadership is key — and the commitment of leadership to commit resources to efforts that are the right things to do.”

Emerson’s diversity efforts span not only recruitment of faculty and students, but also training and leadership development for current employees, and intercultural development for students.

“We have to create conditions that allow all members of our community to thrive. It is easy to recruit them into the setting, but they need help to survive,” Spears said. “That is what it takes for the diversity stuff to really have any power.”

According to Spears, the aim is for diversity and inclusion to become part of the culture of Emerson and she believes that is key to success in an educational world that is becoming increasingly diverse because it helps make the college a place welcoming to faculty and students from all backgrounds.

“For us the diversity and inclusion work is fundamentally connected to teaching and learning on our campus,” she said. “It really is something that is becoming the bedrock of the institution and I really think that is the only way you can positively affect diversity and inclusion.”