Diverse Insights: A conversation with Lori Nishiura Mackenzie

Published by:
Shirwac Dirir
October 14, 2019
min read

#DiverseInsights - a series of conversations with the trailblazers turning diversity, inclusion and belonging ambition into action. Our fourth conversation is with Lori Nishiura Mackenzie.

Lori Nishiura Mackenzie is lead strategist for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, at the Stanford Graduate School of Business and co-founder of the new Stanford VMware Women’s Leadership Innovation Lab, collaborating at the intersection of the two organisations. Under her leadership, the Lab launched a corporate affiliates program in 2014 — a learning community of more than 55 corporations, government agencies and thought leaders working together for change. It is now the second-largest affiliates program on the Stanford campus. In her work at the Stanford GSB, Lori is pioneering “small wins” to drive change, build community, and empower change agents across campus. She also teaches in the GSB’s Executive Education program. Lori is a keynote speaker to a wide range of audiences, from executive teams to women’s summits. Lori was featured as one of the BBC’s 100 Women in 2017, and she was interviewed for the award-winning documentary, bias, which premiered in 2018. Prior to her current roles, Lori served as the executive director of the Stanford Clayman Institute for Gender Research. Lori brings 20 years of marketing strategy and business management experience at companies including Procter & Gamble, Apple, eBay and PayPal. She is a board member of the Alliance for Girls and Watermark and an advisor to the Women’s Startup Lab. She has an MBA from the Wharton School of Business and a BA in Economics from the University of California, Berkeley.

What has surprised you in your close work with employers when trying to understand what is happening in their organisations? 

I’m very excited to see the diversity, equity & inclusion conversation in the C-suite. When we first started working with organisations, our work was primarily being engaged in women’s spaces such as women’s initiatives or women’s summits. Then organisations moved toward using our research-based strategies for hiring managers. Today, while we continue to engage in those spaces, we are being asked more to support executive leadership teams. Today the intersection of external and internal social movement pressures — as well as a heightened awareness of diversity and inclusion issues more broadly — has brought this conversation into many levels of organisations. We also see the need to broaden the aperture of the work to ensure that is truly intersectional so that all employees can be heard, valued and can thrive.

Q: You work closely with tech companies in Silicon Valley where many say the problems are made worse by the presence of a ‘bro’ culture. But at the same time, many tech companies have been known to fight hardest for the kinds of work conditions - remote and flexible work - that many in the gender debate believe are part of the solution. And they often are assumed to be able to move faster than some of the more well-established businesses when they make a decision. How much do you find this to be true and what do you think are the true organisational characteristics of companies that make the most progress?

We do work with a lot of Silicon Valley companies, and I believe that the environment is both a help and a hindrance to equality. On the positives, there is a wide awareness of the need to advance women, a commitment to innovation, and a solutions-orientation. On the negatives, there is often a lack of understanding of what the problem is, a commitment to speed, and a hubris that can come from a sense that anything can be solved through technology. 

And despite this balance sheet, I’m optimistic about the efforts we’ve seen to move beyond one-off programming to creating sustainable change. In one of our projects, researcher Alison Wynn looked at what happens when the lead of diversity and inclusion leaves the organisation. What she discovered is that the strategies that work align with change management: A collective approach, distributed ownership, executive support, and frame as a business imperative, not a perk. The good news is that these strategies are not limited to a particular ecosystem but instead, can help leaders think about the foundations of a sustainable change effort in their organisations.

Q: There’s a perennial debate over whether senior leaders need a business case to focus on the benefits of diverse teams - what’s your take?  How do you think about how you marshall the ‘case’ for diversity internally?  Has anything surprised you in that process?

In speaking with many change agents in a breadth of organisations, the business case often comes up. I often tell them that there is likely no single cause or reason why leaders get on board, but that regardless of the why they engage, one common factor is that they often have an “aha” realisation that becomes their motivation. Some leaders are motivated by innovation, others by a war on talent, and still others use the moral argument. Offering data, frameworks, and insights from within the organisation can help leaders form a genuine and lasting commitment.

What has been delightfully surprising is how engaged some leaders are. For example, John Donohue at ServiceNow. A key step he took was to hire Pat Wadors as his Chief Human Resources Officer. Pat coined the phrase DIBs (diversity, inclusion, belonging) and is the leading expert on creating cultures of belonging that foster diversity and inclusion. He was the impetus behind the first Women’s Initiative Summit when he was CEO at eBay and again, at ServiceNow. I’ve been impressed with his ability to genuinely speak on the issue and to lead authentically at the intersection of inclusion and innovation. I think more and more, I’m meeting CEOs who have a similar commitment, and this gives me optimism, despite setbacks and the big job we still have ahead of us.

Q: For the men that aim to be allies for the cause - what’s one thing you would suggest they start doing and one thing they should stop doing to promote gender equality in their workplaces? 

One starting place I suggest is to adopt a learning orientation. In other words, be curious. Be open to learning about the issues that may exist in your workplace. Just because a person hasn’t experienced micro aggressions or negative reactions due to one’s status, doesn’t mean these dynamics aren’t problematic for others. 

The second place I’d suggest is to think about what you can stop doing. Like, stop talking over women during meetings or explaining on behalf of women “what they really meant to say.” Instead, elevate their voices and amplify their ideas. You can shift the dynamic so that there is less domination by a few, to a culture where everyone’s contributions are valued and heard. This shift is not only good for equality, but it’s also good for innovation: for harnessing the cognitive diversity of teams.

When a person’s characteristics are perceived to align with a stereotype or template of success, we tend to offer them leniency — less scrutiny when evaluating their performance or work. When another person’s characteristics are perceived to not align with the template of success, we tend to put them through more scrutiny or hold them to a higher standard. As a result, when our definitions of success align with stereotypes of men, the systems can inadvertently prefer them and weed out well-qualified women.

Q: Your work with executive teams typically identifies that we all have a tendency to associate leadership with traits we also stereotypically associated with men and that this is part of the reason we see such a lack of diversity in top ranks of firms. That seems to hold true even for organisations that profess to value other skills like ‘collaboration’ and ‘being a team player’ which research suggests we more often associate with women. What processes reinforce these unconscious stereotypes and how can we reverse them? 

When a person’s characteristics are perceived to align with a stereotype or template of success, we tend to offer them leniency — less scrutiny when evaluating their performance or work. When another person’s characteristics are perceived to not align with the template of success, we tend to put them through more scrutiny or hold them to a higher standard. As a result, when our definitions of success align with stereotypes of men, the systems can inadvertently prefer them and weed out well-qualified women. When we broaden definitions of success, we are more likely to see beyond the narrow template and look for folks who add to our success as opposed to replicate the past.

One system that can reinforce this is performance management. Even when a company values drive and collaboration, when it comes to a competitive situation like one promotion out of 10 contenders, the evaluators tend to rely more on traditional markers of success, like drive and genius and on their networks, like personal relationships and visibility. While there is much to do, a focus on defining the organisation’s leadership values and designing processes to ensure they are used consistently and fairly can certainly lead to important changes as we saw in our work with GoDaddy (you can read more here.)

Q: You’ve done a lot of work helping organisations see that ambiguity can open up the door to bias. How has this played out and what design tricks can organisations use to combat it?

In many cases, managers make decisions about their employees without pausing to reflect on how they’re making the decision. It can be a small moment, like deciding to ask one employee their opinion over asking another or inviting an employee to join them at a key meeting. It can be a big moment like assigning a client to a salesperson or putting an employee on a key high-visibility project reporting to the CEO. And it can be a career-making or breaking moment like choosing the top candidate for a job or making a recommendation for a promotion. When managers move away from gut reactions and towards identifying criteria and using a more deliberate process, they can begin to be more effective and fairer. I call this “constrain the open box.” Instead of approaching these key decision — from informal to career-defining — as an open box to fill, I suggest using a rubric or a form of deliberation as a means to offer consistency and thoughtfulness. Then, if organisations take the burden off of managers and design processes that help managers make better decisions, they can scale good decision-making from just a few to becoming an organisational imperative.

Q: What’s the hardest thing about making progress in this space? If you had a magic wand what would you use it to change?

There is much that is difficult in our space. One of the hardest things I see is getting to the underlying issues that need to be addressed. Many of our programs over time have not resulted in sustainable change — that’s why I value research. Research can help us understand not only why we have outcomes but also, the root causes and what works to reduce discrimination.

While there are many things I would use a magic wand on, I would pick the development of technology. I would go back to the early days when the field was identifying what makes good technology and what makes a good technologist. I would add to their work with an intersectional feminist lens! I would add a process of evaluating technical solutions with a lens for seeing who has been left out and have inclusion as a marker of success. I imagine that many of the issues we are trying to solve today — like algorithms that don’t recognise black faces or online medical assistants that don’t recognise menstruation or sexual harassment — would never have been created.

We hope that after reading this conversation, you’ll be inspired to take action and make diversity a priority in your organisation. We think that our resource centre is a great start. It’s packed full with guides and studies for the next champions of diversity, inclusion and belonging. We've also recently compiled a list of the best job boards for diversity, so you can focus on recruitment channels that are aligned with your DEI goals.