It sounds like the opening to a tired, unfunny joke, but in Jackie Bsharah’s case, it rings true.
“How many women does it take to change a lightbulb?”
Answer: “Zero. You’ll have to get a man to do that.”
Bsharah was beginning what would become a promising journalism career when the lightbulb incident happened. A production assistant at a Bridgeport, West Virginia, television station, she was told that a ceiling light was out in the studio, so she went to get a ladder to replace it.
“I was told I could not climb the ladder to change the lightbulb,” Bsharah recalled. Instead, she was instructed to get another production assistant—a man—to do the job.
A Mere Annoyance—or Something Worse
For Bsharah, who went on to work 17 years for the Associated Press, the incident was little more than an annoyance—similar to when a male colleague at the station informed her that, “All males know more than all females about sports.” But at a time when scores of women have come forward accusing prominent men sexual harassment, and sometimes assault, Bsharah sees a disturbing connection between the minor slights she experienced and the more disturbing allegations surfacing almost daily against prominent men in politics, journalism, entertainment, and other fields. Put another way, an underlying message that one gender is more inherently privileged can lead to damaging transgressions.
After her journalism career, Bsharah became an organization development consultant and executive coach working in the areas of conflict management, leadership development, and diversity awareness. An adjunct professor in Georgetown University’s graduate program in Human Resources Management, she co-teaches courses, including Creating and Sustaining a Climate of Inclusion, with fellow consultant and executive coach Keith Earley, Ph.D., J.D.
Problems like sexual harassment stem from power imbalances, so they can’t be confronted by simply increasing diversity, Bsharah and Earley said. For example, the hotel and restaurant industry is highly diverse by race and gender, yet it accounts for more sexual harassment charges than any other industry. Only when diversity is accompanied by a climate of respect and inclusion can these issues be addressed.
A Microcosm of the World
Bsharah is of Syrian and Lebanese descent; Earley is African American. She’s an extrovert; he’s more reserved. Together they try to model the best of what diversity and inclusion can bring to the workplace or the classroom.
“It’s really important work that we’re doing,” said Earley, “and we have an imperative and an obligation to do it well.”
Added Bsharah: “We are a microcosm of what happens in the macro world.”
Or perhaps of what can happen. Because, while many companies and organizations have come a long way since the idea was popularized in the 1960, others have not. In the past three decades, there has been little overall improvement in the status of women or minorities in the workplace.
“Among all U.S. companies with 100 or more employees, the proportion of black men in management increased just slightly—from 3 percent to 3.3 percent—from 1985 to 2014,” according to a 2016 article in the Harvard Business Review. “White women saw bigger gains from 1985 to 2000—rising from 22 percent to 29 percent of managers—but their numbers haven’t budged since then.”
These poor outcomes affect not only women and minorities; according to numerous studies, they also hurt a company’s bottom line. According to a 2015 McKinsey & Company report, companies that are in the top quartile for ethnic diversity perform 35 percent better financially than those in the bottom quartile, while those that are in the top quartile for gender diversity perform 15 percent better than those in the bottom quartile.
A “Culture of Blame”
But diversity alone is not enough. An organization may claim to want a diverse workforce, but if it doesn’t consciously and systematically work to create an inclusive, fair, and respectful environment, no amount of diversity training or outreach will change its dynamics.
As Earley put it: “You can have diversity coming in the door, but if you don’t have an inclusive culture, that diversity is just going to go out the door.”
Georgetown’s Human Resources Management program includes several other courses that also address various aspects of diversity, including Theories of Diversity and Inclusion; Analyzing and Addressing Institutional Discrimination; and Staffing the Organization, which focuses especially on the role of staffing in facilitating diversity and inclusion.
In today’s fraught and politically polarized times, we suffer from what Bsharah calls “a culture of blame.” Sometimes, it seems that everyone but ourselves is responsible for whatever it is that troubles us. But if we want a just and inclusive society or workplace—and not simply one in which the “other” is to blame—we’ll have to turn that equation on its head and shine the spotlight on ourselves instead.
“The more aware we are, the more mindful and thoughtful we can be about the way we interact,” Bsharah said. “But awareness is just the first step of change. It’s what you do with it that counts.”