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“To Make Meaningful Long-Term Change We Have to Take a Systemic Approach To It”—Ruchika Tulshyan on Creating a More Inclusive Workplace

by Brendan Dowling on March 1, 2022

Ruchika Tulshyan combines her years of expertise as a DEI consultant for global companies along with her journalist’s acumen to write Inclusion on Purpose: An Intersectional Approach to Creating a Culture of Belonging at Work, a ground-breaking and user-friendly guide to making workplaces more inclusive environments. Tulshyan articulates that inclusion must be a practiced habit rather than an acknowledged theory, and gives leaders the tools to transform their companies into more inclusive spaces. Tulshyan’s meticulously researched management book also serves as a workbook for leaders, ending each chapter with prompts for writing and reflecting on how the issues covered in the chapter show up in the reader’s life. Tulshyan might be familiar to readers for her appearance on Brené Brown’s podcast as well as her frequent essays for The New York Times. Her previous book, The Diversity Advantage: Fixing Gender Inequality in the Workplace, focused on leadership strategies to advance women at work.

Can you begin by discussing how the pandemic has affected women of color in the workplace?

I think the pandemic revealed—especially to people who didn’t have it on their radar—how challenging the workplace is for women, and especially women of color and people with other intersectional identities. Currently the data just from last year is that thirteen million women as a whole left the workforce, versus male employment returning to pre-pandemic levels by the end of 2021. That was really concerning data and showed just how precarious current working conditions are for women, people who are caregivers, and people who have mental health challenges. It’s certainly women of color who are disproportionately in lower wage, very hazardous jobs with poorer protection. I think that the pandemic really revealed that and hopefully put it more on the radar of people who, in the past, just weren’t aware of or didn’t have any insight into what the situation is like.

Something I found valuable was how you called the reader’s attention to how systems are structured. Can you talk about the systems that are in operation and what needs to be done to make them more inclusive?

What’s interesting about this book is there’s this tension between how much change comes down to an individual, right? I don’t know if you’ve been following this viral thing that happened where a travel writer tweeted her salary, and she said, “For the person coming after me, this is what you should ask for.” People applauded her and were very excited about it. When I was interviewed about this, my take was that it’s amazing what she did, but expecting individuals to solve the systemic issue—where the job [listing] should ideally have had a salary posting on it—is only going to take us so far. One individual will go to another and say, “Here’s what I was paid, here’s how I was hired, and here’s how the system works.” That’s tricky, because then we’re not going to solve the systemic issues at large. So there’s this tension between how much of it comes down to the individual and how much of it is the systemic change to make. What I always argue is that these are systemic issues and as individuals we need to take responsibility for creating better systems, so it’s not just a one-to-one change on the individual level.

I think in terms of systems that have been exclusionary in the workplace, they range from hiring and the way that hiring systems are set up to the overreliance on meritocracy and the belief that the best person for the job—or the best person for the leadership role, or the person who deserves to be paid the highest—will just naturally select themselves out. I think there’s an over-reliance on the system to be fair and bias free, when truly the research is quite clear that, unfortunately, that’s not the case. Across the board we fall prey to our biases, whether it’s the affinity bias of wanting to hire people who look like us, or whether it’s the homogeneity of our networks, where we generally hire people who look like us or went to school with us. I think to make meaningful long-term change we have to take a systemic approach to it.

You write about hiring for a culture add instead of culture fit. Can you talk about how that shift in thinking benefits the workplace?

Again words matter and vocabulary matters. I think what often happens is we think of culture fit as being a very benign and even benevolent way of thinking about the workplace: “We all come from the same culture, we all connect with each other.” It’s an approach that isn’t rooted in reality, when there’s a system where a culture is exclusionary and we continue trying to fit for it. What that inadvertently means is essentially back to that idea of hiring for sameness. Often what that means is hiring people of the same race, gender, and background of what’s already represented. We’ve seen this in industries and corporations and organizations across this country where there’s a very specific fit. Sometimes people don’t even articulate that. In the United States, back to this [idea of] meritocracy, we want to believe that of course we’ll hire the best person for the job, but when you actually look at the data of the last five people who were hired, you find there is a pattern. We are hardwired to pattern match. A culture fit really perpetuates that.

What a culture add does is give vocabulary to say, “We realize the last five people we’ve hired have been the same ,or they’ve had very similar traits, and now we need to think about what’s missing today and what’s going to add to our culture so that we can truly diversify it.” It’s what feels like a very little tweak in language, but it can actually make a monumental difference when it comes to diversifying and making your culture more inclusive.

It feels like as the book progresses, you’re continually widening the scope on what change could look like. Can you talk about how you structured the book?

The structure of the book really came from my own experience in advising companies around creating inclusive cultures and with my own research that I’ve done over the years. What I’ve found time and again is that sometimes the biggest barriers and challenges that needed to be overcome were the internal defensiveness and the internal biases that the leaders were grappling with. Conversely, where I would see huge change, or where I would see those interventions that were being put in place on a systemic level making change, was when individual leaders had taken responsibility and accountability for creating change. So I structured the book learning from my experiences in the over ten years that I’ve been advising leaders on creating inclusive cultures. The first step is really to understand, identify, and give language to how bias shows up, how it sounds, and how we want to make change to be more inclusive, and what that actually looks like on an individual level. 

The second part of the book is more around organizational interventions. There are certainly examples of how you can do that as an individual contributor or if you’re a manager with a smaller team versus the very large interventions where I’ve interviewed corporate companies that gave me really large examples of making change. Then the final part of the book was really structured on a more aspirational and asking on a more macro level, “What does it mean to create a technology industry that’s more inclusive and centers women of color?” It’s much more aspirational. It’s much more thinking about what does change at large mean? 

The book is much more interactive than perhaps other management books, in terms of the workshop elements you include at the end of each chapter, asking readers to reflect or write about their own experiences. Can you talk about why it was important for you to have that element of the book and how you envision a book being best used by a reader?

My hope was that this would be seen and viewed as a management leadership book not unlike when we’re reading about creating better habits in the workplace or better management and whatnot. My hope is that it will not be relegated to the diversity and inclusion category: “We should share it with our women’s employee resource group” or “Only the diversity and inclusion office in our organization should be reading this.” I really hope that managers, leaders, and individual contributors at all levels will think about it, because there are examples of how we have influence in every area of our life to make change. For me, I hope people will make notes, scribble in the margins, and write where the key reflections have given them space to write and really think about this in a much more living breathing way. I think these ways to carry it forward beyond what you’re reading in the moment, there’s a real opportunity to do that only if you’ve spent time reflecting on what you’ve been reading, so that was my hope in having those key reflections there. 

You write about how inclusion is often thought of as the sole responsibility of Human Resources. Why is that a dangerous assumption and how can others in the workplace take on the responsibility of having an inclusive mindset?

It’s tricky, because I think what has happened–and I think the reason why in a lot of organizations there’s so much room for improvement around inclusion, diversity and equity–is that it has been seen as the sole mandate of HR to put policies in place and that’s it. [There’s the thought,] “Beyond that, it’s not my responsibility, because my day to day job is in accounting or finance,” or whatever it is.

The change that needs to be made, and hopefully that this book can inspire, is actually we all need to take responsibility. We all have an opportunity to do that, whether it’s thinking about how we’re interviewing candidates—and it could be for a role completely unrelated to diversity and inclusion—it could be asking, “How do we ensure that we have a diverse candidate pool?” Where I’ve found change—again, I’m thinking of all the different leaders and managers I’ve worked with—is when a manager will go back to HR and say, “Actually, I’m not going to interview this candidate pool because it lacks diversity, and I’m looking for a culture add in my organization or team. I’m not looking for a culture fit.”

These interventions can only happen when individual leaders take responsibility and ask for change. I think that’s where that partnership between HR and other functions of the organization can again be really powerful. There have been a lot of social psychology experiments around this, but when we think that other people are going to take responsibility for it, that often absolves us from taking responsibility for it. Hopefully the book—and really the foundation of the body of work that’s built on taking a much more active approach to creating an inclusive anti-racist culture—shows us that no, we all need to take responsibility for it and there are opportunities to do that well beyond HR.

You talk about how literature specifically related to undoing anti-Black racism is crucial to read in tandem with this book and you include some resources at the end. Can you talk about why it was crucial to have this list of other resources for readers to make use of?

My experience that really shapes my perspective is living in different countries around the world. I’ve also been really fortunate to travel quite extensively from a young age. What I’ve found again and again is that anti-Black racism is a huge issue that we see around the world. Linked with that is this nuance of colorism, where people with darker skin are largely disadvantaged and lighter skin is preferred. When I think about the biggest opportunity for meaningful change from an intersectional lens, it really is ensuring that Black women are put in the forefront of any sort of major effort to be inclusive. I really wanted to make sure that everyone who reads this book, no matter where in the world you are, [understands] that the legacy of the experience of Black people in America really has a huge part to play in the way the whole world has unfortunately been structured around anti-Black racism. I think that’s something very hard to say and sometimes it’s hard to name. Without confronting that, I don’t think we can make meaningful change. That’s not my area of expertise, so that’s why it’s important to do this work in collaboration and solidarity with historians and scholars whose expertise is grounded in both the legacy and the history of anti-Black racism as well as how it shows up in our contemporary world.

And finally, what role can libraries play in helping patrons make their world a more inclusive place?

How much time do you have? (laughs) I can’t speak for every author, but I can definitely speak from my own experience. Growing up in Singapore, I found myself largely underrepresented. Being a minority ethnicity and race in every country I’ve lived in, including my own home country, has formed my experience. I remember growing up how much the role the public library in Singapore played. Actually being able to seek out the perspectives of other communities who had experienced marginalization, racism, or being underestimated created this very unique, expansive solidarity in me from a very young age. I’m thinking of books by Black American women authors—Terry McMillan, Maya Angelou—books that really made me realize, “I’m not alone and there are connections around the world that exist.” The reason I had access to that is because of public libraries.  

I’ve had conversations with schools and how the curriculum often needs to be diversified. I talk about my own experience growing up in Singapore and largely reading literature that was recommended and required at the time, largely being from Western authors, largely talking about a white American or a white British experience, which was completely foreign to me. I definitely did not find myself reflected in that. Where I think the public library has a really important part to play is in ensuring that the resources are from a diverse background of authors and reflect the diversity of experiences. For me, that was one of the very early times in my life when I remember being able to have access to picture books with characters of color, with skin color more like mine, and realizing there’s actually a really big world out there where I can find my experience reflected. The public library was a very big part of that. Now being able to come full circle, I have a five year old, and again being able to make very intentional choices: “Hey let’s look for a book where you’ll find yourself reflected, where the characters could have a name that’s unusual, or they could have a skin color like yours, or they could have hair like yours.”

We know that when you do not see yourself reflected in media and books and literature how much it impacts your sense of self, especially when you’re younger. The public library has a huge part to play in creating a more inclusive world and creating a more inclusive workplace. If you’ve interacted with diverse points of view from a young age, research shows you will carry that forward into all the other areas of life as you grow older.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.