“I was like, ‘What on earth are you talking about? Most leadership is still white men. Why do you think that?’” said Mahdawi, now a columnist for The Guardian and freelance brand strategist.
“You kind of can’t win if you’re a minority these days,” Mahdawi said. “Because we’ve been talking about diversity a lot, I think that’s given people the impression that now if you’re a woman or a minority, you’ve got a leg up, and that everything’s stacked up for you, and there’s all these affirmative action programs, etc. And clearly that’s not the case.”
Mahdawi, who referred to herself as a “threefer” during a 2016 TEDx-Hamburg talk on workplace diversity — “I’m brown, I’m gay, I’m female; I’m three minorities for the price of one,” she joked — was frustrated about the increasingly common misconceptions surrounding diversity in the workplace. So in 2016, she became the founder, president, chief hopes and dreams officer, and chief minority officer of satirical website Rent-A-Minority — tagline “Get Ethics with Our Ethnics” — to create humor around the serious issue of companies implementing diversity initiatives for superficial reasons, rather than to create a well-rounded team of employees.
“We have a minority for every occasion,” reads the tongue-in-cheek introduction on the website, which offers minorities to “rent” or hire. “Whether it’s a tech conference panel, an awards show, an advert, or a business meeting, we will collaborate to find the right minority for you. All of our minorities have been vetted to ensure they are not ‘too black’ or ‘too Muslim’ or ‘too much of a feminist.’ We know how awkward that can be.”
The site goes on to say, “Actually doing something meaningful to disrupt institutional inequality would be way too much work; so why not just Rent-A-Minority instead?”
According to Mahdawi, this approach was the easiest way to break the ice on a sober topic that plagues just about every industry.
“Because you can either get angry, or you can get over it with humor,” she said. “I think one of the issues with diversity is people get really depressed talking about it, or they get stressed. They’re worried about saying the wrong thing, or they don’t really want to talk about it. And I think humor is a good way to make a point to people whose ears might otherwise be closed.”
Mahdawi spoke with Convene about the impact of Rent-A-Minority, what steps organizations can take to cultivate an inclusive corporate culture, and what business event strategists can do to create more diverse and welcoming environments for their participants.
After Rent-A-Minority launched, did you receive any feedback from businesspeople that the website opened their eyes to the issue of tokenism?
Yeah, definitely. I also received feedback from people who were like, “Thank you. This is a really good icebreaker for me to be able to bring the issue up with my boss, in a way that doesn’t make them get defensive.”
Are there any companies that have impressed you with how they’re handling workforce diversity?
When it comes to companies that are dealing with diversity well, I actually don’t think there are that many good examples. Especially if you look at the big tech companies, which over the past few years have poured millions of dollars into trying to recruit more diverse candidates, but have then lost all of those candidates because they haven’t fostered a culture where these people can thrive.
One mistake a lot of companies make is that they focus on recruitment rather than retention. And you need to do both. I always talk about diversity as a culture problem. You need to create a company culture that’s actually a meritocracy, and that doesn’t pretend to be a meritocracy, and where people feel comfortable speaking up.
What other steps can companies take to make meaningful changes toward inclusivity and diversity?
The most important thing is so simple, but it seems to be quite hard for some companies: to actually listen to their employees. Make sure that everybody in your company feels like they have a voice. And then once you’ve heard them, tell them how you’re acting on their concerns, and show that you’re actually actively listening, and working on what your employees want.
Some companies are using artificial intelligence (AI) to help create a less biased hiring process. Is this effective?
I think we have to be careful with AI. It can be really useful, but you have to also remember that it has bias built into it, and we’re not quite sure what that bias is. And then if you have those tools that scale, you might actually be making the problem worse.
Another thing with AI, I think, is that it’s often used with entry-level jobs. We’re seeing loads of women getting hired in entry-level positions, and then they drop out as they get more senior, because the problem is retention. I think there’s definitely a place for [AI], but it needs to be approached with caution.
As a speaker and attendee, what has been your experience in terms of diversity in the business events industry?
Well, I think that because social media is so quick to pick up on all-male panels — there’s even a Tumblr that’s about all-male panels — that companies have started to be a bit more cognizant of the optics, and have started to try and ensure that their meetings look a bit more diverse. But I think there’s also a bit of laziness, because you often see the same few faces pop up again and again. And I think that it is true that you have to do more work to build a more diverse panel, but it tends to pay off. These people are out there. You can find them. You just maybe have to do a bit more work.
Watch Arwa Mahdawi’s TEDx-Hamburg talk on YouTube at convn.org/Arwa-Mahdawi.
Read anecdotes people have sent Rent-A-Minority about their “minority moments” at rentaminority.com/stories.
Ascent is supported by Visit Seattle and the PCMA Education Foundation.