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How to Achieve Diversity: Stop Making Excuses

Editor's note: This piece originally appeared here.

As a gay woman working in a male-dominated profession, I'm acutely aware of the need for diversity and the importance of being included. And yet, I've made excuses.

Diversity is essential both as a value and a practice. It ensures that new ideas surface, guards against echo-chambered agreement and allows all people to have a voice at the table. But still, we fall short. Despite well-intentioned efforts, businesses, governments, universities and the Federal Reserve all struggle to adequately reflect the populations they serve. So it's time to say, no more excuses.

For me, no more excuses means taking ownership of the outcomes, whether or not I have complete control over them. For humans, it's pretty easy to pass the buck; if it's not in our direct control, we convince ourselves that we're not responsible. We certainly did this in the Economic Research group at the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco when it came to achieving gender diversity. Year after year we reassured ourselves that we weren't really accountable for our lackluster diversity report card. We noted that few women go into economics, and even fewer go on to get econ Ph.D.s. When they do, higher-profile academic institutions with deeper pockets and more bargaining room snap them up. We just can't compete. In other words, given the circumstances, a B is a pretty good grade.

In reality, these excuses were a trap. They deflected responsibility and allowed us to grow comfortable with the status quo. Ultimately though, the facts were not on our side. The "really?" moment came when looking at the gender representation of our research associates (RAs), who are hired right out of undergrad with degrees in economics, math and statistics. Our report card revealed that on average about 80% of our RAs were male and 20% female. A quick check of the data on new grads showed that the share of men and women graduating with these credentials was closer to 60% male and 40% female. Clearly, we had room to improve.

So, we committed to increasing gender diversity among RAs in our department and gave ourselves a year. As the associate director of research, I took responsibility for the effort. We began by looking at where our recruitment practices had gone awry. We looked back at past applicants and hiring standards and found our practices were consistent and fair.

But this is where achieving diversity gets hard and our story gets interesting. A deeper look showed that we weren't getting representative percentages of qualified female applicants. In other words, we were losing before we even started. So we asked around and talked with professors, undergraduate econ clubs, past and existing RAs, and other professional contacts, and found that people didn't think of the San Francisco Fed as an appealing place for women to work. Simply stated, many thought of the Fed as a "boys club." This perception was deterring talented individuals from applying and undermining our goal of attracting the highest-caliber workforce.

The revelation was jarring, especially to me, as a long-tenured woman in the department. Still, the message was clear and it provided a straightforward path for change. We rolled out a campaign to better inform faculty and students about the inclusive work culture and diverse opportunities at the Fed. We sent letters to hundreds of colleges and universities, letting them know we were committed to increasing the female and minority representation in our department. We also told our story: We are a top-flight research environment; we are committed to training RAs and preparing them to get Ph.D.s or whatever they desire; and our alums go on to great success in a wide variety of fields. As simply as that, we increased the diversity of our highly qualified applicant pool.

And then the real work began. I called every person we made an offer to, male or female, and talked to them about the job. We followed up with calls from other economists and RAs and worked to answer their questions and allay their concerns. This high-contact approach yielded tremendous benefits. At the end of the hiring cycle, we had a 50-50 gender balance.

Now, truth be told, none of this was without some pain. When we committed to increasing diversity, we got the usual objections. Standards will fall, targets are constraining, I know a good RA when I see one, etc., etc. Stripping these objections away and changing how we hired took a cultural reset as well as a process shift.

The new culture acknowledged that diversity of ideas and diversity of individuals are themselves a goal. It also recognized that our responsibility for diversity goes beyond hiring Ph.D.s; we also are responsible for growing the pipeline of future graduates. We supported our cultural shift with process changes including forming a diverse RA recruiting committee, centralizing RA hiring across the department and requiring representative interview panels and candidate slates. We also built up programs to promote RA inclusion and development and worked to make the experience of the Fed attractive to everyone.

Still, the biggest change was in our mindset. We acknowledged that we were not victims of a backward world but rather causalities of our own excuses. Shunting those aside made it clear that we are as responsible as anyone for building the bench of new Ph.D. economists, and we can begin by committing to diversity among RAs.

So, that's our story. We succeeded in attracting a high-caliber workforce that better reflected the gender diversity of the talent pool. We did this about four years ago and have held onto the gains. Our employee data shows that we have a highly engaged and productive RA pool and that this satisfaction has made it progressively easier to attract a diverse pool of qualified applicants.

But the work is far from done. We continue to struggle to increase gender diversity among our staff of Ph.D. economists, and we certainly haven't reached our goals in terms of racial and ethnic minorities, even among our research assistants. Still, the message is clear. No excuses means no excuses. It means a willingness to do whatever it takes to get the outcomes we want, and taking full ownership when we fall short of the mark. It means consulting the data and changing the processes in place to get a better result. And it means recognizing there is always more to do. That's the commitment we've made at the San Francisco Fed and one I hold myself to as a leader.

Mary C. Daly is senior vice president and associate director of economic research at the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco. She currently serves on the U.S. Congressional Budget Office Panel of Economic Advisers and is a research fellow at the University of Southern California Schaeffer Center for Health Policy and Economics, and at the Institute for the Study of Labor (IZA) in Bonn, Germany.

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