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Leadership matters. Not only do leaders guide policy and practice within their organizations and institutions, but they also set the tone for what is expected of us and what we can achieve.

Organizations and individuals dedicate substantial time and effort to identifying and supporting new leaders and fostering existing leadership. However, while the country as a whole has focused greater attention on understanding who leads us and increasing the diversity of voices who sit in positions of power, Bush Foundation and Minnesota Compass heard a common question from those living and working in our state: Who leads in Minnesota?

The data weren’t readily available nor easy to access, and what was available did not answer all of the questions we had. So, Minnesota Compass and Wilder Research teamed up with the Bush Foundation and brought in partners to put together the new Who Leads in MN? section on mncompass.org. The site brings together two main sets of data: 1) data from the U.S. Census Bureau and 2) data from a survey of local leaders in the nonprofit, business, and government sectors. My colleague put together an informative summary of what we learned from existing data; below, I share a few key findings from our survey.

Who was surveyed?

We partnered with the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits, Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, and the League of Minnesota Cities to obtain information from leaders within their membership in the nonprofit, business, and government sectors, respectively. CEOs, Executive Directors, and other C-suite leaders in the nonprofit and business sectors were surveyed, and mayors, city council members, and chief appointed positions within cities (like city managers) were surveyed in the government sector. 

What did we learn?

We need to work intentionally to increase racial and ethnic diversity in leadership – the problem won’t fix itself.

While about 1 in 5 Minnesotans identify as BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, people of color), only 1 in 20 of its leaders do. It’s a common belief that younger leaders are more racially diverse, and because of that, our leadership will naturally diversify as time goes on. Unfortunately, we did not see evidence for that in our study, as the average age for BIPOC leaders was similar to the average age for leaders overall. Because of this, we do not believe that racial disparities in leadership will solve themselves over time. It is clear that intentional work is necessary; we cannot wait for the problem to fix itself.

Figure 1. Average age by sector–BIPOC vs. All
  Average age  
  All BIPOC
Government 55 50
Business 57
Nonprofit 53 50
Note: There were too few BIPOC respondents from the business sector to be able to report a mean age.
Source: Wilder and Bush Foundation leadership scan, and Minnesota Council of Nonprofits leadership survey

 

Diversity exists across all areas of the state and no one region’s leaders reflect its racial and ethnic diversity.

There are a couple of common misconceptions we have in Minnesota about race and geography:

  1. Greater Minnesota isn’t diverse, so homogenous leadership just reflects our general population, and
  2. The Twin Cities metro area is doing a good job of supporting diverse leadership.

Neither of these points are entirely accurate, as we see in the data. In the general population the Twin Cities metro area does have a higher proportion of its population that identify as BIPOC than the regions of greater Minnesota, but racial diversity exists in all areas of the state.

Figure 2: Percentage of the state's region that identify as people of color
Region % People of Color
Twin Cities 24%
Greater MN 12%
   Central 8%
   Northland 8%
   Northwest 14%
   Southern 10%
   Southwest 9%
   West Central 7%
Source: Minnesota Compass

Additionally, just because the Twin Cities has more BIPOC residents than greater Minnesota does not mean it is doing substantively better at providing pathways to leadership for BIPOC individuals. Across the business, government, and nonprofit sectors, we saw that 95-96% of leaders identify as White, and while the percentage of leaders who identify as BIPOC was slightly higher in the Twin Cities metro area than greater Minnesota, these percentages are still far from reflecting the diversity of its racial and ethnic composition.

Figure 3. Percentage of leaders identifying as BIPOC in the Twin Cities and greater Minnesota
Sector Twin Cities Greater MN
Government 10% 3%
Business 5% 5%
Nonprofit 7% 1%
Source: Wilder Research and Bush Foundation leadership survey, and Minnesota Council of Nonprofits leadership survey

It’s a common belief that younger leaders are more racially diverse, and because of that, our leadership will naturally diversify as time goes on. Unfortunately, we did not see evidence for that in our study, as the average age for BIPOC leaders was similar to the average age for leaders overall. 

Pathways to leadership look a little different for people from different backgrounds

We asked leaders to clarify how they came into their position, whether that was being promoted from within their organization, being externally hired to fill the leadership role, founding their organization, or in the case of government leaders, if they were elected or appointed into their position. We compared the pathways between White and BIPOC respondents and the pathways between men and individuals who are most likely to experience gender-based marginalization in the workplace, including women, nonbinary and transgender individuals, and individuals who opted to self-describe their gender identity. 

The nonprofit sector included respondents who identify as nonbinary, women, men, and individuals who opted to self-describe their gender identity. The government sector included respondents who identify as transgender, nonbinary, women, men, and individuals who opted to self-describe their gender identity. The business sector only included respondents who identify as women and men.

In the nonprofit sector, men were more commonly externally hired to fill their leadership position than women, transgender, and/or nonbinary persons, who were more commonly promoted from within. In the government sector, men were more likely to fill elected positions, while women, transgender, and/or nonbinary individuals more commonly held leadership positions they were placed in through a hiring process (like city managers). We did not see notable gender-based differences in pathways to leadership in the business sector.

We also saw that in the government sector, BIPOC leaders were more commonly elected to their positions, while White leaders were more commonly hired. We did not see notable differences in how BIPOC leaders and White leaders came to their positions in the nonprofit sector, and the number of BIPOC respondents was too low within the business sector for us to make comparisons.

Barriers and biases

Each pathway to leadership has its own barriers and biases baked into the process. It will be important for those working in each sector to assess how their hiring practices potentially create barriers for those who identify as BIPOC, women, or with another group that faces workplace discrimination. The government sector faces a unique set of questions, as the voting public determines who holds positions of power in their community. It is interesting to see in our survey results that BIPOC leaders are more commonly elected officials than hired leaders; it is possible that typical hiring processes serve as gatekeepers in ways that elections do not.

Each pathway to leadership has its own barriers and biases baked into the process. It will be important for those working in each sector to assess how their hiring practices potentially create barriers for those who identify as BIPOC, women, or with another group that faces workplace discrimination. 

Survey respondents suggest many strategies to support leaders of all backgrounds 

We asked survey respondents in the government and business sectors how their sector can better support leaders from populations that have been historically excluded from leadership opportunities (such as BIPOC, women, nonbinary, and transgender individuals). The question was asked in an open-ended way, and our team coded responses to identify the most frequent themes.

We need to do more than engage and encourage to diversify leadership

We pulled out responses from BIPOC leaders and from leaders who identify as women, nonbinary, and/or transgender to better understand how leaders from these groups suggest their sector move forward. Across both sectors, these leaders most commonly suggested that organizations dedicate time and energy to outreach and engagement with marginalized communities to encourage individuals from those communities to apply for open positions, run for public office, or otherwise get engaged in the sector. Oftentimes, leaders noted that it is not enough for organizations to encourage these individuals to apply or run for the positions; organizations must also examine how current hiring practices and policies might be creating barriers for people of diverse backgrounds and how those practices and policies should be changed to better allow for the diversification of staffing and leadership.

BIPOC and women, nonbinary, and transgender leaders also frequently suggested that workplaces examine how their policies and culture may be biased against people of different backgrounds or otherwise create an unwelcoming environment. Specific policies mentioned include dress and hairstyle policies, as well as policies around flex time, remote work, and part-time work.

Some leaders don’t believe lack of DEI in the workplace is a problem

When we looked at responses from all leaders, regardless of demographic identity, we saw that they generally agreed with the approaches suggested by BIPOC leaders and leaders who identify as women, nonbinary, or transgender. The greatest difference in these responses was the frequency at which leaders pushed back on the premise of our study by saying that they do not believe anything should be done to increase diversity, equity, or inclusion (DEI) in the workplace; their community does not have a problem with DEI; organizations are already doing too much work in this area; and the responsibility for increasing DEI in the workplace rests on those from marginalized communities.

We see in these responses a gap in acceptance of the need to address the lack of diversity in leadership, and in leaders’ willingness to dedicate time, energy, and resources to creating change. We did not see pushback on the premise of this work from respondents who identify as BIPOC, but did see this from some White respondents, including White respondents who identify as women. It is essential that enough of these leaders grow to understand the magnitude of the issue and how a lack of diversity, equity, and inclusion in the workplace hurts everyone, and that those working on this issue are able to organize a broad coalition of these leaders within each sector to make real progress as a state.

Oftentimes, leaders noted that it is not enough for organizations to encourage these individuals to apply or run for the positions; organizations must also examine how current hiring practices and policies might be creating barriers for people of diverse backgrounds and how those practices and policies should be changed to better allow for the diversification of staffing and leadership.

What can you do?

This is just the beginning of this project; we plan to do another two rounds of this survey, with each round occurring 2-3 years after the last, to see if the state is moving the needle on increasing diversity in leadership. Additionally, data from existing sources (like the American Community Survey), will be updated annually. Here are a few things we encourage you to do in the meantime: