Recent news headlines on the issue of diversity and inclusion (D&I) in the workplace, or lack thereof, in the tech sector has shown a harsh light on the reality of D&I in corporate America, raising questions on whether or not a diverse workforce is really attainable and good for business.
I joined Dow Chemical Co. nearly 25 years ago in Latin America and have had the benefit of serving in multiple roles that required me to work and live in Dow's four major operating regions — Europe, Latin America, Asia Pacific and North America. Those immersion experiences provided me a lasting perspective on the importance of gender, ethnic and cultural diversity, which have influenced my management style and understanding of what inclusion really means in the workplace.
For the last five years, I've been privileged to serve as business president of Dow's largest business unit — Packaging and Specialty Plastics. I also serve as co-chair of one of Dow's Employee Resource Groups: Women's Innovation Network (WIN). In both roles, I actively champion the advancement of women at all job levels and have witnessed a ground swell of increased gender diversity that is higher than the industry average of 25 percent.
Packaging and Specialty Plastics' employee population currently sits around 40.4 percent female, up from 34 percent four years ago, with 99 women joining the management team since 2013. I'm proud of the progress we've made, but I've also received many questions around the methodology put in place to achieve this kind of success — quota-driven or merit-based? How did I do it? How has our division created a team with such strong female representation and diverse, multicultural backgrounds from upper management to our most junior members? And how can other organizations and industries have the same success?
My answer always surprises people. I don't set hiring quotas for D&I in my business, whether gender, race or cultural. There are no top-down mandates or a prescriptive agenda to fill a certain amount of positions with minority candidates. From the moment leaders assume responsibility for their teams, they have to create diversity and ensure inclusion with their actions.
If a people leader considers applicants without bias, the best person for the job has an equal chance of being male or female. The same goes for the chances of being an obvious fit based on their education or previous job experience or coming from a background or other industry that might be different.
Open-mindedness in the search for the best talent creates opportunities that quotas and mandates never can: the opportunity to do the job. It may sound obvious, but in the past, I've seen women treated as valuable assets because of their "diverse" nature first and their work second. That kind of thinking creates a culture of protection where women and minorities are hired but don't get as many opportunities to take on more challenging assignments because their talent is overlooked or even ignored.
Withholding tough assignments from women doesn't just rob them of the chance to achieve great results and develop better skills, but it also shows the deep flaws in the systems of thinking that support hiring quotas and diversity policies. Biases are at the root of those systems: the idea that the best candidate for the job will come from a familiar, traditional background and that anyone who isn't part of that majority will need a special pathway to ensure they get a chance to participate. When leaders only give safe, middle-of-the-road work to women, women cannot distinguish themselves, no matter how talented they are.
For an alarming example, look at the tech industry. According to the most recent report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor, the percent of women in tech has been in decline since 1993, while at the same time women have been earning more STEM degrees in other sciences. Over the same time period, women even have earned the majority of undergraduate degrees in biological and biomedical sciences, according to the U.S. Department of Education. It should be clear from the data that the reason more smart, qualified women aren't entering the tech industry is that the tech industry isn't giving them the same opportunity to apply, succeed and excel that other STEM industries are.
Within the petrochemical manufacturing industry, the data tells the same story. According to the National Science Board, women receive about 40 percent of undergraduate degrees in physical sciences and engineering. This percentage has been within one or two points of 40 for the last two decades.
If leaders start by opening the doors of opportunity to all qualified applicants — truly offering the same chances to women and men of all cultures who can do the job — they will fill teams with diverse members.
Five years ago, on my first day as business president of Dow Packaging and Specialty Plastics, that is exactly what I did. I didn't wait for approaching retirements to backfill positions. I didn't start with a small test group or worry about the people who might not recognize the value that multicultural team members would bring to the group. I hired the best people for the job and created a ripple effect by moving them around from region to region, role to role, to enhance their depth of experience and cultural awareness and let their performance be the proof point.
Our business made gains in local multinational markets because our diverse, multicultural team had a heightened awareness of the challenges unique to those markets. The value of inclusive thinking became clear as well, and we now have best-in-class high-performing talent and teams that consistently deliver business results. This approach works. As evidence, Dow's newly announced Chief Inclusion Officer, Karen Carter, is a former senior leader in my organization.
This is why I'm not just a champion of women in the workforce; I'm a champion of women's performance and potential. I'm a champion of inclusivity and ensuring that opportunities are open to every qualified person in our organization, regardless of background, culture or gender. Any leader can replicate this kind of success. All it takes is setting up your team by looking for the best person for the job, without bias or preconception.
Diego Donoso is business president, Packaging and Specialty Plastics, at Dow Chemical Co.