Category Archives: Diversity

Why the CIA Struggles with Diversity

I recently wrote on this topic for Overtaction. org. You can find the complete post here.  Highlights below. (or at least I think so!)

The Central Intelligence Agency has a problem recruiting minorities and advancing them into senior leadership positions, CIA Director John Brennan admitted last month. “There have been impediments,” Brennan told reporters, “to minority officers being able to rise in the organization.”

As a Puerto Rican woman who spent 32 years at CIA and nine of those years as a member of the Senior Intelligence Service, you might think my experience revealed a few secrets for advancing as a minority at the Agency. But during my career, I was struck much more by the subtle (and not-so-subtle) barriers to entry and advancement that the Agency presented to people who did not come from a Western European background. Not all of the affected were members of officially recognized minority groups—you can be a different thinker regardless of your heritage or experiences. But the information CIA released on minority representation suggests ethnic and racial minorities have had the most difficulty adapting to existing cultural norms, both when they seek Agency employment and when they attempt to advance in the bureaucracy.

My hunch is that any effort to increase both minority presence and influence at CIA will falter as long as the subtle and not-so-subtle cultural barriers to entry and advancement exist. As the recently published Diversity Leadership Study concluded, the CIA does not consistently promote an inclusive culture. In my view, constructing a more inclusive culture requires the Agency to reset some of its cultural precepts, including some long-held, treasured beliefs.

One cultural precept at CIA I think harms diversity efforts is an American/northern European-centric view of the world. This perspective expressed itself in many ways, most of them quite subtle. For example, I often heard the phrase “American Exceptionalism” at CIA. Senior leaders would use it frequently, never imagining, I would think, how that might come across as patronizing to a sizeable percentage of the workforce. Even now, I feel compelled to add—lest my patriotism be challenged—that I am a proud American who believes the United States contributes in a positive way to the planet.

But I think that’s generally true of all cultures—they make positive and negative contributions to the world. It is perhaps inescapable that an American intelligence agency would default to the West as its model and icon of goodness. But Agency leadership could usefully audit their common phrases and mental shortcuts to remove ones that are egregiously Euro-centric.

Another example is a phrase I heard with some regularity from CIA officers that went something like this: “Everything in country X has fallen apart since the [pick your colonial power] left.” Although I shared my discomfort with friends, I’m ashamed to say I never pointed out directly to a colleague how such a remark might come across to members of a minority group – especially one from that particular nation.

It’s probably not obvious how such under- and overtones might relate to the lack of minority representation among CIA leaders. What I think happens is many officers struggle with being true to their own beliefs and cultural heritage even as they seek career success at the Agency. I know I did. The Diversity Leadership Study acknowledges the subtle ways in which this culture can impede the advancement of people who are different:

The Agency does not recognize the value of diverse backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives, nor consistently promote an inclusive, “speak-up” culture where all opinions are heard, valued, and taken into account. Some officers disengage because when they share their thoughts and perspectives on mission or workforce issues they are not considered. [emphasis mine]

Read the rest of the post here.

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My Puerto Rican Visitors

My great-aunt Laura and her husband Felix visited me in northern Virginia the last week in April. My great-aunt is 83 years old, Felix a few years younger, and they live in Puerto Rico. She was the youngest and now the only survivor of a robust line of siblings of my grandmother, Doña Yuya. (Abuela died at 96 1/2 years old in 2003.) Laura and my mother, who turns 80 this summer, grew up like sisters in the barrio of Santo Domingo in Caguas, Puerto Rico. When they get together, they like to talk about the chickens who lived with them. When the chickens became sick, Abuela would burn tires. Most of the chickens would die, but the ones that survived were declared cured.

Like he does every time we see him, Felix talked about his tough childhood in Puerto Rico and New York City. His schooling ended in the third grade as a result of his mother’s death. His father sent Felix off to stay with other relatives, who put him to work at a restaurant of sorts in Puerto Rico, where Felix says he might as well have been a slave. He only had one shirt and one pair of pants, he said, and didn’t attend school. He was saved by an Americano who would come to the restaurant and who eventually offered him a better job. Felix ended up in a cold water flat in New York City. He had no idea of how cold water could get until he took his first shower in the winter.

Felix was constantly on the phone, checking on his network of friends and family in Puerto Rico.Felix (It is unusual for Laura and Felix to travel anywhere now that they’ve retired.) Felix is the facilitator, the engineer of his social circle. His areas of expertise include car repairs, cell phone bills, and baseball, particularly the New York Mets. He also knows what most things should cost and was surprised that the Burger Kings in the US mainland charge more than the ones in Puerto Rico. He appeared to know to the penny what he should have been paying.

Labor Unions. Felix recounted his experience at his first job as an adult. He was working at a factoria in New York City and eventually ended up as the shop steward, even though he did not speak much English. (He still doesn’t.) During some kerfuffle he was fired and he filed a complaint with the New York Labor Commission. When they investigated, according to Felix, they discovered that the owner of the factoria was also the head of the labor union. Felix was always a union man; he believed companies always took advantage of Puerto Ricans and blacks.

Economics. Felix eventually became the treasurer of a social club in New Jersey, Amigos Unidos. He became frustrated by the endless hassle collecting annual membership dues, so he suggested to the club leadership that they drop the dues and rely on bar revenues for income. Most of his colleagues were dubious but, as Felix recounted, his plan worked. They made more profit from the bar than they ever made from membership dues. The club became so profitable that it eventually acquired its own building, which was an overstretch. They also ran afoul of the local liquor commission, which began to impose stricter conditions for a liquor license.

Cemeteries. Perhaps the highlight of Felix’ and Laura’s visit was when we visited Abuela’s and my father’s graves. Abuela is buried at a lovely cemetery in Arlington, Virginia. My mother grieves every time she visits but this time Laura was there to reassure her. Visiting AbuelaMy father is in Arlington National Cemetery, which always makes for an impressive visit. My mother is calmer when she visits my father. She only says the Our Father at his grave and omits the Hail Mary because he was a Protestant.

Felix loves to play cards and claims to be a successful gambler. One day I invited a friend who knew Abuela to come over and play cards with us. Abuela knew her as La Alta Flaca. We played Spanish cards–Briscas, and Felix was a good teacher of the game. He also won.

All in all, it was a good break for Felix and Laura. He left us with his favorite saying: Cuídense que de los buenos quedan pocos. (Take care, because there aren’t too many good ones left.)

When I Said “NO” to Multicultural Awareness Training

Adam Grant and Sheryl Sandberg have a piece in the New York Times this morning pointing out that:

New research suggests that if we’re not careful, making people aware of bias can backfire, leading them to discriminate more rather than less.

When people were told that women in the workplace suffer from stereotypes, these individuals continued to rate women as “significantly less career-oriented.”

Cue Time Machine!

My mind immediately went back to thirty years ago when I was seven or eight years into my career. In the 1980s, organizations were coming to grips with the “issues” of the multicultural workplace. Mandatory courses on cultural awareness were the order of the day.

These courses only really seemed to have an impact if among the attendees were representatives of minority populations who could speak truth. Through the stories of their personal experiences, they made more concrete the lessons of diversity training. The problem, however, was that many organizations in the 1980s lacked sufficient numbers of women and minorities in their workforce to attend all the courses. So I ended up taking the same course a second time just to ensure that the class had the right “diversity balance.”

And then they asked me to take the same course a third time.

“We need you in the course because you’ll speak up about your own experiences.”

Yup. That’s what I would do. I would tell my classmates about subtle and not so subtle indicators that my coworkers viewed me differently, apparently because of my ethnicity and gender. And when I did that, I felt increasingly uncomfortable. Drawing attention to myself as a Puerto Rican woman just seemed counterproductive. “Yup, there she is complaining rather than concerning herself with the mission”

And so I said no! I wasn’t going to keep making repeat appearances at these courses. Of course organizations desperately needed to foster a workplace that was fair to all, but not by creating circumstances that were unfair to me and many other women and minorities. In a weird way we were being asked to self-incriminate ourselves.

Based on the research that Grant and Sandberg document, I have a hunch that those diversity awareness courses 20 to 30 years ago may have done more harm than good. “If everyone else is biased, we don’t need to worry as much about censoring ourselves.”

Grant and Sandberg suggest one possible solution: leaders need to be explicit about their intolerance of direct and indirect discrimination.

When we communicate that a vast majority of people hold some biases, we need to make sure that we’re not legitimating prejudice. By reinforcing the idea that people want to conquer their biases and that there are benefits to doing so, we send a more effective message: Most people don’t want to discriminate, and you shouldn’t either.

Useful Tactics for Rebel Managers

Another redirect to Rebelsatwork.com but I’m hopeful I’ll have some new RecoveringFed content up soon. Meanwhile, if you’ve ever wondered why being a rebel is just like being an NFL running back, then read here.

The Politics of Curls

I have very, very curly hair. It is naturally curly. I went through a brief period in my teenage years when I tried to straighten it, but through no particular wisdom and stemming more from general laziness and cheapness I soon abandoned those efforts. So I have kept it short and curly ever since.

Curly hair is an ideological position. Even if you don’t intend it as such, American society, in fact most Western societies, attach some type of value to curly hair, and it ain’t a positive one. (I think, I don’t know, that this may just stem from the fact curly hair is a minority occurrence in most parts of the world. See this excellent Wikipedia article on hair for more information as to its evolution.) As I ended up in more senior positions at the CIA, I realized the importance of looking neat and crisp, a condition I nevertheless rarely attained. There is something about your physical profile that projects authority to others. (I’m not happy about this, but it remains so. A wise friend of mine has noted that social conventions mean it’s easier in office settings for men to look crisp than women. Men wear a suit, a white shirt, a tie. Women wear a wide range of outfits, jewelry, shawls–i.e., not crisp.)

Curly hair looks neatest when it is shortest. So as I climbed up the corporate steps, I sat more often in my hair stylist’s chair. Now that I’m working again post-government retirement I’m getting my hair cut every 4-5 weeks. (25 years now Rita has cut my hair. I find curly-headed people are very particular and loyal about who cuts their hair.) I’m obviously not brave enough to let my hair go longer and look less organized. Less organized! I guess that’s what others see in people with curly hair–a messiness that they assume extends to other parts of curly heads’ lives, such as thinking. (Tangent: The climbing of the corporate ladder is quite an apt metaphor for what happens to individuals as they acquire status. As you climb a ladder, you must concentrate more and more on your position to remain safe and stop looking down lest you get distracted. In fact, smart climbers mostly look up. Isn’t this what happens to senior managers?)

I was discussing these ideas with a young woman at my new workplace who also has curly hair but who recently showed up with straight blonde hair, something she does every once in a while. She said people have actually told her she looked smarter, more competent with straight hair. Sigh!

So what’s my point? Well, first, do I really have to have one? I mean, having a point is just so, I don’t know, linear. But, second, it is to sensitize that there are many subtle, subconscious ways we categorize others as less important or less competent. And curly hair is one of them. (Grey hair is another, I think.)

Not having straight hair, not looking crisp are just more examples of the subtle barriers to entry that diminish our effectiveness as a species. Curly hair affects me but every person probably can tell a story about some characteristic they have. These subtle barriers to entry are legion. I’ve actually never been sure I wanted to enter and more importantly stay wherever it was others found so compelling, but I’ve always believed all of us have the right to discover that for ourselves, and not have others make that selection for you.

PS: I did a few google searches on the subject of curly hair. I recommend the following blog posts.

Everyday Life with Curly Hair

Hair Manifesto

Manifesto of a Former Self-Hater

Has Twitter Eaten My Brain? (Lesson 22)

It’s been more than a month since I wrote a blog post. Reasons:

1. I’ve started doing some hours as a consultant, so most of my pleasant “thinking and writing mornings” have disappeared. I need to develop a new routine.

2. I’m getting ready for a vacation to southern Africa. I have two more nights of good sleep left before it’s wheels up, and stay tuned to this space for pictures and reports of what we hope will be excellent adventures. My interest in the world has many antecedents, but one in particular was the show Discovery that ABC aired in the 60s and 70s as part of its weekend children’s programming. Perhaps some of you remember it as well? Hearing the jazzy score after four decades is Proustian in its effect.

3. I haven’t had anything to say that I couldn’t say in 140 characters or less. Is this scary? I can’t quite decide myself, but generally I quite like the discipline of having to convey ideas in short, digestible snippets, although admittedly the “telegraph” language and spelling used in twitter just seems to confuse/annoy some people.

I keep a list of topics, ideas I might want to blog about, but none of them seemed worthy of an entire posting.

  • On Diversity. One of the ways I can tell that Latinos haven’t really made it into corporate America yet is how easy it is to use my surname, straight and unadulterated, as a userid on business-oriented websites. On the Harvard Business Review website, I was able to walk right in as “camedina”. At the CIA I was just plain “medina”. No medina25, no convoluted acronyms. Medina is a pretty common Spanish surname; according to About.com it ranks 30th in frequency of use in Spanish-speaking countries. (In the US the 30th most common surname is King.)  The About.com list of 100 most common US surnames makes for good perusing. The two most common Spanish surnames in the US are Garcia and Martinez, which come in at 18 and 19, with Rodriguez just outside of the top 20.
  • More on Diversity. There have been some comments on my post from a few weeks ago on the essential Latino heritage of the US. I’ve really no interest in argument, because I’ve learned over the years that debate never really seems to change most people’s views. I’ve been struck recently, however, by the dynamic impact that new waves of immigrants are having on US society.  For example, the south Asian, specifically Indian, contribution to the US economy cannot be overestimated. I’ve read estimates that upwards of 25% of Silicon Valley startups are Indian-run firms. Personally, I think the most prosperous future economic scenario for the US is decidedly multicultural.
  • On the Difference between Government and Private Industry. As I dip a toe or two into work outside of government, my first impression is that the two are more similar than not. Both probably have about the same proportion of good/dumb ideas and competent/incompetent staff. The key advantage for private industry, however, appears to be that it can kill bad ideas/projects a lot more easily than the federal government seems to be able to.
  • Lesson 22 from a CIA manager: Be clear about what kind of management problem you’re facing. Sure, there are many sticky situations the artful manager can unstick, but be careful to diagnose problems correctly. There is a whole set of problems that managers can never solve. They can only be solved by the passage of time (and generations). Many of these can only be managed like some kind of chronic illness. The Arab-Israeli dispute comes to mind, for example. Really difficult people are also likely to “outclass” you. Remember, you will only spend at best a few years with this individual who suffers from really difficult emotional issues or pathologies. My motto was: If your parents weren’t able to correct your behavior, there’s very little chance I ever will.