Dr. Pushpa Iyer is an activist, scholar, and practitioner in conflict resolution, diversity, equity, and inclusion. She is currently an associate professor at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies (MIIS) in Monterey, California. She is passionate about social justice, which she understands as navigating and managing social change through creative approaches.
Dr. Iyer takes a value-based approach to teaching and learning. Her more recent efforts are focused on getting students to consider how our colonized minds impact knowledge acquisition and dissemination. Her work and research in Gujarat, India, South and South-east Asia, and parts of Africa have focused on identity-based conflicts, non-state armed groups, and peacebuilding in societies emerging out of war and violence. Her efforts to bring peace between the divided Hindu and Muslim communities in Gujarat laid the foundation for her passion for social justice.
She continues her activism work in her new home, the United States, through programs designed to fight racial inequity, discrimination, and violence in higher education institutions and beyond. As the first Chief Diversity Officer of the Institute (2018-2020), Dr. Iyer coordinated various efforts to increase diversity, equity, and inclusion in the school. In this role, she took the lead with the administration's support to bring systemic change, ran mandatory courses for students, and facilitated dialogues for students, alumni, faculty, and staff. In 2016 she started Allies at MIIS, a research-cum-activism project to build allies for racial equity on the Middlebury Institute campus. Currently, she is developing Compassionate Courage, an intervention approach designed for identity-based conflicts.
Dr. Iyer holds a Ph.D. in Conflict Analysis and Resolution from George Mason University and an MBA from the University of East London.
Q: Why are diversity, inclusion, and equity important to business?
Apart from the fact that it is the right thing to do, businesses may find it important to keep Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) central to their mission and work. Research shows that addressing inequality at work will result in positive outcomes -- profit and image for businesses. Of course, the correlation between DEI and profits is not direct. It requires a conscious effort to embody DEI values in every aspect of running the business, but the benefits are clear. Companies have known for a long time that if their people feel secure with a sense of belonging, they are valued for who they are. If employee perspectives are respected even when they are "different," businesses have a winning, motivated, and contended workforce. Such a workforce builds the image of the business more effectively because it is an inward commitment as opposed to corporate social responsibility initiatives, which reflects outward commitment. Both are important, but the former goes a long way in attracting a diverse group of clients who see the company as "walking the talk." When people – workforce and clients – speak for the company, the image rises tenfold compared to the business claiming that they "care."
The current global reckoning on race will ensure a more diverse group poised to enter the workforce even if businesses are not actively seeking diversity through their recruitment policies. By making DEI central, businesses will ensure that their spaces are welcoming and safe where everyone feels respected, valued, and has a sense of belonging. It is nothing but a win-win all around.
Q: What tips would you give startup founders to ensure that DEI are embedded in their company culture?
Culture is created, upheld, and changed by humans. Once founders accept agency for the culture in their organization, they must examine the various ways in which culture is shaped and defined. What constitutes culture? Culture is understood as observable behavior, that is, how we interact and treat one another. Culture is also the explicit and implicit understanding of norms that tell us what we should do or should not do and what punishment we can expect if we violate the norms. A third and crucial aspect of culture is the values we want everyone to hold close. When conflicts arise, the most observable aspect is behavior. For example, we blame people of one country for behaving or speaking in a certain way and point to it as cultural differences. We punish them for not ascribing to the dominant culture's prescription of how to behave. Dominant cultures, in turn, reflect values held by the privileged groups and are closely tied to policies and procedures in the institution. This is how culture and system collude in systemic discrimination.
Startup founders should be deliberate about creating culture. Instead of focusing on changing observable behavior, founders and leaders should focus on the values that underlie culture. The process for agreeing on shared values will help develop a more inclusive culture. Such cultures will include values held by individuals coming from diverse experiences rather than imposing on everyone the values held by a powerful few. Founders and leaders will do well in examining culture routinely and engage in changing culture as employees change or shift outside the organization over time. Culture is never stagnant, so it helps to manage it within an organization by involving everyone.
Founders and leaders will do well to challenge themselves to examine systemic cultural "problems" when identity-related conflicts emerge in the organization. Never are these conflicts just an issue between some employees, but they are almost always symptomatic or changes that need to happen in the system and culture.
Q: When hiring, how should companies approach interviews and candidates to maintain a culture of diversity and inclusion?
Organizations are well-advised to approach the recruitment process as a tool to ensure a diverse workforce. However, the recruitment process extends beyond hiring to creating an equitable and inclusive environment to retain the employees. When approaching and interviewing candidates, the leadership must ensure they are not hiring people with the sole goal of increasing diversity in their organizations but must consider how well equipped they are, as an institution, to handle a diverse workforce. This means that a lot of groundwork needs to be done by companies before they interview candidates. This includes reviewing HR policies, training for their search committees, and exploring implicit biases that these members might hold. External factors like cost of living, demographics of the city where a company is located, and opportunities for growing a family may not be something the organization can control, but the more aware the recruitment team is of these realities, the greater the possibility of negotiating a deal that works for new employees and the company. One of the biggest hurdles for increasing or maintaining a strong DEI culture is that when recruiting, companies are looking for people who will "fit" into their culture instead of looking at a potential employee and asking what and how they might "add" something new to the existing organizational culture.
Q: Is there anything that employees can do to tackle inequality and put pressure on their company to become more diverse and inclusive?
There is a lot employees can do. Those at the mid-level positions are most equipped to lead change because they have fewer constraints, politically speaking. Also, they are more connected to those in lower positions of power and can become the conduits for communicating what DEI should look like in spaces of the organization that are most distant from the leadership. To be change-makers, mid-level employees must keep themselves more informed, be aware and stay connected to one another. They need to be engaged in gathering information on DEI matters from both within and outside the organization, creating a culture of reflection so everyone is conscious and aware of their responsibilities in furthering the culture of DEI. Finally, they must be prepared to take action to challenge and pressure leadership to bring about changes. Often, employees are afraid of speaking out, supporting those already in trouble, and standing in solidarity with one other if there is a culture of competition in the organization. All of this only benefits the leadership. Mid-level employees might need to build the courage to challenge leadership with compassion while staying true to their colleagues. In my experience, the systemic change that DEI requires often fails because employees, especially those with some power, are unwilling to stand up for each other. As the famous saying goes, "when we do not stand up for who is down today, no one will stand up for us when we go down." Solidarity is the most significant pressure employees can put on leadership to become more diverse and inclusive.
Q: How has DEI in the workplace changed in the past ten years?
Today there is more awareness of DEI in all aspects of workplace life than there was ten years ago. DEI was something leaders ignored and even opposed, then in the next phase, efforts to further DEI was indulged, but calls for more DEI has been the loudest this decade. There have been some significant changes in terms of policies, knowledge, and aspirations, but the sudden shift in 2020 is for the record books. I believe the killing of George Floyd has heightened awareness of systemic inequalities and inequities in a significant manner and is, therefore, the beginning of a new era. This increased awareness is positive and can be a tool for some real change to happen. As someone who has worked on DEI issues for a long time and was ignored for most of this time, my concern is about sustaining this intense interest and motivation that many organization leaders have professed since early 2020. Globally, today, the problems around identity are complex, the approaches to change unclear, leadership weak, and emotions high. These challenges are reflected in organizations, and the heightened pressure to bring change has led to more awareness and a desire to further DEI. Many organizations appoint individuals solely responsible for building DEI but rarely are these individuals supported, given resources, or endowed with power.
Further, when organizations respond to external forces and the willingness to change does not come from within, many things go wrong. One of these adverse outcomes is the rise of call-out culture. Call-out or cancel culture involves shifting of power by name-calling, shaming, and defaming those who are considered the source of harm. Organizations end up with leaders who engage in virtue signaling as a way to avoid scrutiny themselves. The resultant culture of intolerance, leaves privileged leaders ill-equipped to deal with conflicts and a community that is deeply divided. It remains to be seen how we all rise to the challenges and respond in ways that genuinely furthers DEI in all spheres of our workplace.
To conclude, I want to stress the increased importance of training and education in DEI, especially for leaders, continued efforts to dive deeper into identifying the organization’s shared values and approaching systemic change with compassion and courage.