Conversations about race and diversity can be tough. But that’s where Mita Mallick thrives. She handles the most uncomfortable conversations with ease and grace. As Unilever’s Head of Diversity and Cross Cultural Marketing, it’s her job to facilitate discussions around diversity and inclusion. Every day, she inspires leaders across the organization to lean into tough conversations, to lead with empathy and create a more inclusive workplace for all. And in doing so, she’s playing a huge role in moving a behemoth company with 155,000 employees globally into a place where they have been recognized for the progress made in this area. I talked to her about her role, the challenges she faces everyday, and learned a bit more about how we can all be better at navigating these tough conversations (spoiler alert - it involves a lot of listening.)
Amy Shoenthal: Tell me about your career path a bit, how you got to the role you’re currently in.
Mita Mallick: I grew up around doctors and engineers so that was always what I assumed I’d grow up to be. Role models are really important. I was even pre-med for awhile until I realized I hated the sight of blood. Then one day I saw an Indian woman who was the franchise owner of my local Dunkin Donuts. That’s when I realized I could be a business woman - that there was more than just one path for someone who looked like me.
I interviewed at Unilever four times and was rejected three times. Rob Candelino, the current GM of Unilever in Thailand, is the one who finally hired me to run the hand & body lotion category. I actually interviewed with him while I was on maternity leave and joined the company when my son was only five months old. When I started, I was very quiet about the fact that I had a five month old. But that was just because of my own insecurities. Unilever was actually very supportive. Like I said, role models are important, and here I was, surrounded by a lot of female and male leaders who talked openly about their kids. Now, as a leader myself, I’m very open about when I have to miss an important meeting because my son is in a play. I also realize that we have to be inclusive of people who don’t have children. Just because they’re not leaving to relieve the nanny, they may have something that’s equally as important.
Shoenthal: Tell me about your role and why it was created.
Mallick: I came back from my second maternity leave and was looking for my next assignment. My then CEO and other career sponsors (including Rob) approached me about a role as the new director of diversity outreach and inclusion but I was resistant. Sometimes other people see a path for you that you can’t see for yourself. Globally Unilever had done a lot of work in gender inclusion, but there was more complexity in diversity that needed to be explored. We wanted to figure out how to build a workforce that reflected all the consumers around the country who we were trying to reach every day.
The biggest motivator in my decision was my family history. I come from a family of Indian American immigrants and both of my grandmothers were child brides. They were married off at 12 and 10 to men who were in their 20's. They didn’t have options, they weren’t given a choice. So to me, gender equality is not theoretical and academic. I can see the progress that’s happened just over the course of three generations. I see what can be achieved when we give women the ability to make choices for themselves.
Shoenthal: Tell me about how you’ve seen diversity in your industry evolve over the past few years + where you think we're heading.
Mallick: I get concerned about the phrase “diversity of thought” because that doesn’t happen without adequate diversity of representation. So whenever I hear that phrase I ask people to tell me what diversity of thought means.
A big insight I’ve seen over the last 3.5 years is that what gets measured gets done. Whenever anyone asks me how to get started in adopting a more diverse workforce, I say just pick one thing and measure it. That’s how you start.
When you’re starting to plan for a campaign, make sure you have plenty of different voices at the table. That’s the time to ask uncomfortable questions. But in that scenario, note the difference between diversity and inclusion. You can hire all you want, but when you have the voices in the room, make sure you’re listening to them. Make sure people are being included in conversations. Look around the room - people’s nonverbals can say a lot. I was not very verbal early in my career so now I look around for those people and try to invite them to share feedback or ideas, either in the room or one on one after a meeting. So you have to ask, are you creating an inclusive environment where people feel like they can be heard?
Shoenthal: It’s true - you want people in the room representing diverse backgrounds, but you also don’t want to make people feel put on the spot. How do you address the issue of tokenism?
Mallick: You have to ask people if they’re comfortable so no one feels like they’re being forced to represent an entire community. And you need more than one voice from a community. That’s why you have insight work and focus groups - so you can poll multiple people. You can’t assume that any one person wants to represent any one community. I always say, bring humanity back to work. If you know people well enough, you can talk to them openly about issues impacting their community. You just need to create a psychologically safe space.
Shoenthal: Is anyone getting it right? Do you have any examples (organization-wide or on a personal level) that you can share?
Mallick: I don’t think anyone’s nailing diversity because it’s a journey not a destination. I don’t think anyone could nail this work. Organizations are flawed just like human beings and we’re all constantly trying to be better versions of ourselves. I don’t know that anyone could say, “wow, this is the perfect person,” or, “wow, this is the perfect company.” I’m proud of the work we’ve done in the space and the recognition we’ve received for it (we were named the #1 company for working parents by Working Mother Media) but there’s still a lot of work to be done.
Twitter recently brought recruiting under their head of diversity. That’s a great model because it makes the process end to end by helping not just recruit but retain great talent. It’s a different way of approaching inclusion.
Shoenthal: I won’t even ask about examples of bad behavior because I’m sure you’ve seen more than you’d like - but on a broad scale, what advice would you give to people who witness bad behavior?
Mallick: I work really hard to live my life from a positive place. I always say 99% of people have really great intentions and the 1% is what we currently see splashed all over the headlines. It boils down to intent vs. impact. For example, when someone compliments me on how good my English is (I was born and raised here,) it’s about educating people about those types of microaggressions. It’s tough because bad behavior isn’t always so obvious - it comes in the form of a laugh, a joke, little cuts every day. Sometimes people just don’t understand the impact their actions have, but when you point it out, they can change.
If someone keeps pronouncing my name incorrectly and I instantly shut them down as a racist, that eliminates any opportunity to have a real conversation. It’s exhausting trying to meet people where they are, but that’s the work. It’s how you educate people and how you start to make change.
Shoenthal: Talk to me about comparisons. When we first spoke, you talked about the burden of emotional labor as a woman of color and I equated it to the emotional labor of motherhood to put it in terms I could personally relate to. But in hindsight, that wasn’t a very sensitive approach because it diminished your experience as a woman of color. Can you talk about why – for my own benefit and for others who may instinctively react in a similar way when having these conversations?
Mallick: We’re living in a world that doesn’t shut up. People are constantly talking and trying to add their value. Kindness and empathy are undervalued leadership traits. When someone is sharing an experience with you, just listen. We’re not on a journey to figure out whose emotional toll is greater. When we’re talking about intersectionality, how I identify as a brown woman, as a mother - all those experiences are unique and you can’t compare them. Especially when you talk about race, there’s a long history of people who have been marginalized and it’s a zero sum game. All you can do is have a strong sense of empathy and try to listen to that person’s story and treat them with respect. Most important is to understand that there’s probably not going to be a way to fix it in that moment nor are we going to get any closure from it. And that’s tough because we’re all trying to fix things. So while your intention was good, the comparison makes it seem like the original person’s story isn’t as meaningful. When you start to get at these larger than life societal issues - those aren’t things that one person can fix overnight. And we all really struggle with that.
Shoenthal: You’ve mentioned that your dream is for your role to no longer exist because “we will have finally figured out diversity!” How realistic do you think that goal is?
Mallick: I think this role will become more complex. If we were all the model inclusive leader we wouldn’t need it, but we’re all flawed and we all need work. We need to help all leaders increase their cultural agility and cultural competency.
Privilege is invisible to those who have it. It’s about the decisions we did not make. Where we were born, what we look like, what race we are. Just because you look white doesn’t mean your life wasn’t difficult. We all hold privilege. What defines us, and our organizations, is how we use it.