Jackie: Welcome. Welcome. Welcome to season seven of the diversity beyond the checkbox podcast, whether this is your first episode or your 50th, thank you for listening. I'm so excited to introduce my guest Sara Bowen. Sara is a senior leader in equity, diversity, inclusion, human resources, and employment law who has led DEI efforts for some of America's most iconic brands.
She currently serves as Vice President of global equity, diversity and inclusion at Boeing, where she leads the company's efforts to create a workplace culture in which every employee feels valued, respected, included, and inspired to reach their full potential. Sara, thank you for being here.
Sara: Thank you, Jackie. I'm excited to be here too. And it's really nice to meet.
Jackie: It's nice to meet you as well. Sara, can you start us off by just telling you us a little about yourself, your background, your family, your identity, whatever you'd like to share.
Sara: Yes. Thank you for asking Jackie. So I'm the youngest of three daughters, raised by our mom who immigrated to the states when she was 13, from Taiwan, not speaking any English and my dad who was from a tiny little town in Illinois, kind of a, an Illinois farm kid. They landed in Northern Wisconsin, in a town that was almost entirely white and they raised us three girls.
And so I, you know, from a very young age, had this identity as an outsider because in those days, you know, we were very aware of our difference. We were a very other kids, you know, made us very aware that we look different, and that was incredibly formative for me. And I, it's not to say I had a bad childhood.
I actually had a very happy childhood with a lot of love surrounding me, but it was one very much where I formed an identity as an outsider.
Jackie: Mm-hmm. And Sara, tell me how that made you feel growing up as a child and how that plays into what you do now as a profession and diversity, equity and inclusion.
Sara: Yeah, I, you know, I, as a child, there was this sense of injustice and it was because, you know, you know, frankly, we were, we, we got pushed around, we got called, racial slurs and, and there was something just so not, not right about that. Right? The, the, a racial slur stings more than a regular insult.
And that feeling of this is not right, there is something wrong in the world when people think it's okay to treat another person like this. and so there was a fight, I think that was instilled in my sisters and me from, from a young age, but also incredible amount of hope, because as I said, we did grow up with a tremendous amount of love in our family, and a lot of confidence to feel that we could go out into the world and, and make it better. So it wasn't a sense of defeat. It was a sense of the world can be better and, and we can help make it better.
Jackie: Absolutely. So Sara, you attended Northwestern and then later graduated from Stanford. What did you think you'd be doing with your career? And will you share with us a few of the moments or realizations that you might have had that moves you towards diversity, equity and inclusion, apart from that childhood experience?
Sara: Yeah, for sure. I, I, you know, I'll start by saying I not in my wildest dreams, would I have imagined I'd be doing what I'm doing today, but I did go into law because I wanted to be in the anti-discrimination space. I knew I wanted to be an employment lawyer. I knew I wanted to work in that space of employer, employee relationship, which is the source of empowerment, economic empowerment of, you know, for, for most people and, and could I be an agent for change in that setting?
So, you know, I was on that trajectory. I just didn't know about the field of diversity inclusion. I knew about the field of employment law. So, so that's why I went into it. And I was always involved in diversity efforts from my law firm days to my in-house days.
But I'll tell you, it was when I was working at Amgen that I was first exposed to systemic work. So I got to defend a, a glass ceiling audit. I got to do the systemic work around analyzing promotion rates and compensation and our hiring rates for different groups, and looking at populations instead of individuals looking at the systems that affect outcomes for, you know, whole groups of people.
That to me was so exciting and to think I could be on the proactive side of that work, spotting issues before they became real problems and then fixing them that really lit a fire in me. And I thought, okay, this, this is what I wanna do. I wanna do work for populations, really fascinating work. So then I, and then I went to Starbucks and I was in a role that, that was, that was a hundred percent of what I was doing was the diagnostics of employment issues, affecting women and people of color, and, you know, people with disabilities and veterans, and then designing the solutions to address those gaps. And, I fell in love and one thing led to another and here I am.
Jackie: That's awesome. And you know, Sara, the, the thing about that is people sometimes don't realize the real disparity over the course of your life in the pay equity issue. For example, a white man, right? For every dollar they make a black woman makes 63 cents on that dollar and over the course of a career.
Over the course of a life, that's about a million dollars difference and that's where the wealth gap comes in. And so it's so important, you know, when you're thinking about the difference in cents, right, it doesn't seem that big, but over the course of an. Entire career. That is a big difference. And so that work is so important and those evaluations are so important in creating equity and creating, you know, reducing that, that wealth gap that exists.
Sara: Absolutely. Yeah, really well said.
Jackie: Thank you and Sara, you've been a leader in DEI for quite some time now, can you share some of the other organizations, you've mentioned a few that you've led DEI for, and then really I wanna get into how has DEI changed over the past decade?
Sara: That's such a great question, Jackie., so I, I officially transitioned from a legal role to a DE&I role when I was at Starbucks a number of years ago, probably in the 2017, 2018, range. And so I, I led the effort there and then I transitioned to Boeing in 2019. And I've been letting the efforts at Boeing ever since.
What has changed over the past decade? Gosh, I mean, you know, the thing about DEI is that we do the work that supports the organizations, depending on the social context that exists at the time., and so while some of the issues are enduring, some of them are ever evolving. you look at the role of a corporation.
I mean, in the eighties and nineties, when I was growing up and starting my career, it was all about revenue, generation and profit seeking. Today, corporations have signed onto a different charter where, where they are corporate citizens, and that changes the angle we take. You look at young people today, right?
I mean we; we are more of a melting pot today than we were 20 years ago or 10 years ago even. People who have of multiple races, people of different gender identities and orientations, there's so much more in the mix today, and I think also quite a bit more awareness today than there was even 10 years ago, that it changes the conversation. It changes the landscape.
And, and then lastly, I'd say, the expectations are different. our people hold us accountable and they are choosing where to go based on the company's values and how they live those values. And they will make choices based on a company's commitment to diversity and inclusion. It's, it's that simple. And I'm glad they do.
Jackie: Absolutely. And Sara that's so spot on and you know, that's one of the, the things that in, in my work I share with organizations who, you know, are kind of slow rolling into their DEI practice is, you know, you don't have the option because whether you're a, you know, candidate for a job or a consumer.
Those folks are really digging in on what kind of brands they want to support, what kind of companies they wanna work for. And that values alignment is so important. So important.
Sara: Yes, it is.
Jackie: So your Background, Sara of course is an employment law. And you know that you have to go beyond the checkbox, right, to ensure that you're creating the culture you want for your organization. But again, some leaders don't wanna move beyond that compliance. What's the difference between a compliance-based program and a culture-based program.?
Sara: Hmm, that is such a good question. It's interesting because compliance has almost become a dirty word. Hasn't it? I mean, no one gets excited about compliance, but people get really excited to create hope and inspiration. And I think that's, you know, that is what we're here to do is to create change by bringing people along and generating hope and inspiration.
But I also think that every solid and sustainable DE&I program has to be grounded in laws and regulations. And I have tremendous respect for title seven, you know, which says that employers can't discriminate on the basis of sex, race, et cetera. I actually have tremendous respect for the regulations that cover affirmative action.
Affirmative action has a really bad rap, but when you look at what those regulations are trying to do, they're saying to employers, it's not enough just to sit in your seat and not discriminate. You actually have to get up, you've gotta look around, you've gotta do the analysis, figure out where those gaps exist and then create the programs that will address those gaps.
That's what affirmative action is. It's not check a box; it's not go out and find me three of these and four of those. It's be active, be action oriented. Look for the problems and then go address them. And I think that's a, a wonderful thing. I think that's how many diversity programs really ought to be grounded.
So we don't talk a lot about compliance, but we have deep respect for the work and my team does that work. We do equal opportunity work. We do affirmative action work, and we build on top of that, the programs that bring people together that build the connection that create the why behind the actions and up skill our workforce to be better teammates.
Jackie: Sara. That's such a good point, and you're right. In DEI, the word compliance right. Is, is often talked about with a negative connotation, but really you need that as the foundation of any DEI practice that you're building, that first layer right is compliance. So, you know, I actually had this conversation with someone earlier this week, because there was that negative, like, well, it's a compliance based, right.
And so that's why I asked that question. It actually opened my eyes because you have to have that compliance piece that's part of your DEI practice, and of course there's many pieces, you know, one of which is, the heartstrings part, right, which you did mention, but the compliance piece is, is foundational to a good and strong DEI practice. So thanks for sharing.
Sara: Yeah. And I think if I could just add to it, you know, I think it's important why we do the compliance work. If it's compliance work to not get in trouble, to please the regulators, right. That then it's, it's not gonna add a tremendous amount of value to the organization. But if you look at the why behind some of those laws and regulations, They're really good reasons, right?
There's a really good reason. Title seven exists. There's a really good reason. Federal contractors are asked to engage in, in affirmative action. We don't do it because we have to do it to please the, you know, the regulators, we do it because the underlying work is actually really important.
And, and we want to be the kind of employer that gets out of our seat and does the right thing to advance a diverse and inclusive workforce. And it just happens to coincide with our, with our obligations under some of those laws and regulations.
Jackie: Absolutely. Sara, you head global DEI at Boeing. How do DEI programs differ from country to country and what are some focuses that would surprise us outside of the US.
Sara: Oh, I love that question. That's such a good question., I love the global work we do. It's so it's so interesting. And there are, as you say, there are unique issues in every part of the world, and so while we do have a global strategy and some holistic, efforts and tools and so forth. Real change happens on the ground locally with leaders who are connected to their workforce and connected to the cultural issues of the region.
So one example that comes to mind is our site in Korea, where, when they stood up the engineering and technology center there, they knew they wanted to create a space that was gender equal, that was family friendly. And so they set out to get a family friendly certification before they stood it up. They built in progressive policies. They recruited, you know, with an eye to gender equity, and in a country where there's where only 11% of engineers are women.
They recruited and attracted a workforce that was 45% women engineers. Yeah, it's, it's astounding. Right? And it's, again, this is not because they went out and just, you know, picked women or preferred women over men. It's because they created a space that was a magnet for female engineering talent.
That's not something you can do from afar, right? It takes the people on the ground to know what it takes to create that. and that's one of the examples that we're seeing, you know, we're opening up, centers in Turkey and Poland, and really excited about, some of the change we can make there. It does look different everywhere and, and sort of the, the educational opportunities, the pipelines look different.
but you know, everywhere we go, we're always trying to increased gender parity. We're trying to increase racial, ethnic, you know, national origin, diversity, and most of all build the capabilities in every single teammate, that are, you know, inclusive behaviors that, engender collaboration, humility, and innovation.
Jackie: Wow. You know, I love that you said the word magnet, right? Because you're not just choosing your women professionals or your diverse professionals, you're creating an environment that draws them in. And so I, I love that you said that I think that is so important. That's the environment that you want to create for success rather than, you know, going in re specifically recruiting those women and, and culturally diverse professionals or professionals with disabilities without having the foundation for them to come and be successful and feel that feeling of inclusion and belonging. That's such an important part before you even get to the recruiting stage.
Sara: Yes. Exactly. Yeah. And you can run into a problem if you, right, if you, if you go out and recruit without having that infrastructure in place, you can recruit 'em and then lose 'em, which is, it becomes a vicious cycle.
Jackie: Absolutely. Sara, let's talk about why transparency and accountability are vital in an organization's DEI efforts. You were pivotal in launching the Seek, Speak and Listen habits at Boeing, which is a program that's been characterized as the most significant culture effort in the company's history. Will you tell us about that?
Sara: I'm happy to. It's one of my favorite subjects. So to understand the, the kind of catalyst for Seek Speak, and Listen, you gotta go back in time to 2019, where. Boeing had just experienced two fatal crashes of our max air airplanes. It was a real reckoning for our company. We were looking at ourselves in a critical and humble way.
We were asking ourselves about our culture, about whether employees feel safe to speak up about whether we're doing the right things, you know, to hear, to hear people's perspectives, to do the right thing. And so it was in that climate that we were. Searching for what to do, where to go. And, I was sitting with a couple colleagues at Neuro Leadership Institute Conference, and they were talking about the science of speaking up, and how to make it safe for people to speak up.
And we, we latched onto this. We thought, oh gosh, this is, you know, this is what Boeing needs. And we brought it back and we started socializing it. And what we heard from people was actually speaking up is not the problem it's listening.
Sara: Of course. It's the, it's the other side of that coin people. Won't speak up if they don't feel they'll be listened to and they will speak up if they believe the other person is genuinely, listening. So, so we formed it into speak up and listen. And then I had a, got a meeting with our CEO and I pitched it to him. And I said like, I, you know, for all these reasons, I think this is gonna be great, speak up and listen.
And he thought about, and he said, you know, this is really good. I think we need this. He said, but there's one other thing we need to add. He said, I want every single leader at my company, not just to listen when people come forward with concerns, I want my leaders to go out and find those concerns.
It's the DNA of seeking out those pockets of anxiety, of distress of discomfort, because that's where the learning is. And unless our leaders go seek it, people may not have the courage to speak it. And so he, you know, that's what he said. He said, you go figure out how to, you know, how to build it, but that's when Seek, Speak and Listen was born.
And we it's, you know, it's a very simple model, hard to execute of course on the day to day, but we rolled it out across our enterprise, may of 2021. We did one habit per week for three weeks. And then a, a final week was a capstone events where teams worked together to build their plans. We did this globally, everywhere Boeing is we, we rolled out these habits and, we've been working on them ever since, and they have been a game changer for us.
Jackie: That's so great. And you know, it's, it's really interesting that you have that seek part, right? That's the part that's really scary for a lot of executives who think they understand the sentiment of their employees, but really digging in to ask that question can be scary because you don't know necessarily what the result is that you're going to get, and it might be different from what you anticipate. But that's really the hard work and is understanding the sentiment of your employees based on.
The culture that you've created, what's happening in the world, what might be happening with them personally, and so understanding that and, and seeking that out, I think is so important for organizational leaders to understand, because that you're right. That is where the real information is, and not everyone feels comfortable in a situation to speak up themselves without being asked authentically.
Sara: And the more significant or problematic you suspect the concern to be, the scarier it is to ask the question, right? It's human nature.
Jackie: That's exactly right. I think that's fantastic. And then speaking of transparency, Boeing has published some really impressive reports recently. And again, this is where leaders get nervous, right? Is that the transparent first, the asking, right, and then the sharing. So can you tell us a little about those reports and what Boeing has learned from collecting this data?
Sara: Yeah, well, it's certainly been a learning. I'll tell, I'll tell you that. And you know, as scary as it is to ask the question, what's even scary or. Is not asking the question. Right because the only way we can get better and smarter is by asking the question. And we went into our first report, which was last year, you know, first time the company published DEI metrics in its a hundred and you know, six-year, seven-year history was last year.
And it was scary, and it was a challenge to get everyone comfortable, but we were on this journey and we knew that we had to commit to transparency, not just with our regulators, but with our employees and the flying public and say like, this is, this is how we operate transparently, even if we're not perfect.
Even if there are flaws. Our commitment is transparency and ongoing learning and work to get better. So yeah, in the diversity space, if you don't have transparency, it's really hard to have accountability. And I think, you know, for one thing putting out the numbers has helped us focus our efforts.
We know where we have our biggest challenges, so we can go after those with zeal, we know where we're doing well, so we can, bust some myths and we can also create a sense of strong identity around the things we do well and, and that's been huge, but, but I think most of all we've helped strengthen trust with our employees because we've said, look, we're not, we're not gonna hide this.
And not only that we need your help. We don't assume that we can do this on our own. We don't assume that we know all the answers. We know that we need the collective intelligence of the brilliant people who work here to help us figure this out, and that's what we're trying to do.
Jackie: I love that you use the word trust because transparency creates trust. That's one again, that's, that's the hard work, right? That's the scary work for leaders and, you know, you said, here's what we're doing. Well, here's what we're struggling with. Here's what we need to improve.
That vulnerability I find is another way to really foster trust with your employees, because you're, you're saying I don't have the answers. And that's, that's kind of a new paradigm for organizations. it's different because historically, you know, as a, as a gen Xer, you don't have conversations or organizations don't have conversations about where they're not getting it right.
Right, right? That's behind the curtain, so to speak, it's just, you know, this is, this is great. The company's great. The culture is great. Right. Everything's great. And so being able to pull that curtain back a little bit and talk about. You know what you are doing well, but where you've got room to improve and, and that you need those additional ideas and perspectives to make it better.
I think that's so important. And that's the kind of culture that organize or that, that people candidates, professionals wanna work for because it they're, they feel part of it. They feel part of what's happening and what the evolution is of the organization. So I think that is fantastic.
Sara: And we need them, right. I mean, clearly companies haven't figured this out. And we need the intelligence of our people. I, I read a study that said that diverse teams, so diversity of, you know, age, race, gender, and so on, make better decisions than individuals, 87% of the time.
Sara: You know, just imagine all the decisions we make, right? As a, as a business, as a company from day to day. Imagine if every single time we made an important decision, we had diversity at the table and if we made better decisions, 87% of the time, there's nothing we can't do. There's nothing we can't accomplish together. And so I think that's, that's really empowering and certainly helps bring people along on the journey.
Jackie: Absolutely Sara. Now, Boeing is obviously a big global enterprise. And, and you said earlier, you've been in business over a hundred years. You know, Boeing has been a leader on many different lists for best companies for DEI. What's your advice to organizations that think it's too hard to shift culture to change the way they do things, especially for organizations that are, are larger enterprises? How do they get started? And then how do they maintain momentum?
Sara: You know, the first thing that comes to mind is as hard as it may be to change, it's harder not to change.
Sara: We have to change. We have to evolve; we have to grow. We have to be open to outside ideas in order to survive it. It it's so true. I mean, there, there are so many examples throughout history of companies that refuse to change, that maintain homogeneity in their leadership ranks.
I, I mean, I think we can point to the financial crisis of 2008, as in part, because of group think and the highly, you know, white male dominance across the financial sector. And I'm not saying white men, aren't great leaders, but the lack of diversity I think was partly responsible for that demise. So, so I see it as it's not an option not to change.
So what advice? That's not very good advice., but, advice, I would say, you know, I, I'm a huge fan of our Seek, Speak, Listen habits. I think that, putting in place some foundational habits that are sticky, that are transferable is really important. Having leadership at the table is really important, and we love grassroots efforts, but let's face it.
Nothing happens unless the senior leaders of a company are behind it, and that's part of the reason for some of our success at Boeing is we've got senior leaders who are 110% on board. That's really important. And then having the infrastructure in place, right. You, you can't make change if you don't have the people, the resources, the willingness in place to create the change.
Change doesn't happen by intention alone. It has to happen through action, and it has to happen through systemic change.
Jackie: Absolutely. And then Sara, once they do get started, right? What do they do to maintain that momentum? To keep pushing forward, especially when it gets difficult.
Sara: I think, you know, and it's something we, we struggle with too. How do you keep that momentum going? I think part of it is you've gotta keep reinforcing what's working right? People need to feel like their efforts are paying off and that that's something that we've been learning.
So telling the good news, sharing the stories of success, pointing to the impact people's efforts are having in a positive way, helps build the momentum and sustain it. And then, you know, when we identify the ongoing challenges, bringing people along to help devise the solution is really helpful. And, you know, for us, we've got, you know, we've got a racial equity steering team comprised of members of our executive council.
We've got a racial equity task force comprised of employees from a across our enterprise. It can be exhausting to take on that extra work in addition to your day job. So, it's important to also give people space to do that, or to not do that, to ref, you know, to, to create rotations and to refresh those kinds of teams.
Because, one thing we know is we can't put the burden on, you know, any one set of individuals, we've got to share the burden. If everyone just lifts a little bit, we can lift a whole lot, but if we just expect a small group of people to lift. It's too heavy, a load. That's a lot of the sustainment plan too, for us and maintaining momentum is bringing more people along, creating more ambassadors for inclusion, equipping more people to interrupt bias, to advance inclusion., you've gotta be able to do that in order to maintain the momentum.
Jackie: Absolutely. That's such good advice. Now, Sara, let's talk a little more about seek, speak and listen habits. Can you share. Couple of those habits with us. And what should we be thinking about as we create those programs or similar programs for our own organizations?
Sara: Well, I, I use the word sticky, and so with Seek, Speak and Listen, they're, they're sticky. Meaning people can remember them and they can apply them to pretty much any situation that comes up. They help us achieve our quality results. They help us achieve our safety results and they're a Trojan horse for inclusion, right? Because when we're doing these habits the right way, we’re treating our teammates with curiosity care and respect, which are the ingredients for inclusion.
So, I think, you know, keep 'em sticky, keep 'em simple, keep them transferable and then learn them together. we found that social learning is a really important way to make the habits stick. When you know, your boss is learning the same thing that you are and your teammates are, and your peers are at the same time, it creates a kind of shared accountability. That's a really important way for organizations to learn collectively.
Jackie: Absolutely. Now, Sara, I've read some interviews with you and you have a very action forward perspective on being an ally to underrepresented groups. even when you can't fully understand their experience, which you also share in some of those interviews. How do we advocate for other diverse identities when we don't really understand or can't fully understand their experience?
Sara: Yeah, it's such a great question. I, you know, no one of us can ever
fully step in the shoes of another person. But we do have this beautiful, amazing gift. that all human beings have the capacity for, and that is empathy.
Sara: And it's something we can build. It it's like a muscle. The more we exercise it, the, the stronger it gets. And we can build that by, by having conversations, by noticing, by listening. And, and so often I think people overthink, you know, they think they've gotta go out and read a whole bunch of books on, you know, whether, whether it's race theory or queer identity or, you know, it, that's great., love that, but ultimately we're all human beings.
We all want the same things. We wanna be treated with care and respect. And if we just treat each other. The way we wanna be treated or better yet the way they wanna be treated, we're gonna make a huge difference. So allyship is about empathy. It's about being unafraid to use your voice for good.
And I have been, so like, I think our business resource groups have demonstrated for the rest of us, what allyship can look like. You know, when we had the Atlanta shootings, and many of our, our Asian teammates were, were struggling. It was our Black employee network that wrote a letter of allyship and sent it to our Asian network and said, we stand with you.
We feel your pain. We're you know, and it was so power, such a powerful act of allyship because our black employees had tremendous empathy having lived through so many similar instances. Right and when that happened myself as, identifies an Asian American woman, it was my Black teammates who reached out and said, how are you doing?
Are you okay?, so it's so powerful. So I think we can learn so much from each other, and like I said, the beautiful thing is we all have this thing called empathy and it's something we can all build, just like any other muscle.
Jackie: Hmm. I love that. Sara, thank you for sharing that. As we begin to wrap up, what's the message that you want to leave our listeners with today.
Sara: Mmm. Just one message., well, I think if you've listened this long you're probably on the journey already. And so I would say you're someone who's holding up a light. My guess is you're holding up a light for the people around you. Maybe people you don't even know or haven't met.
And there are dark times when it feels like the light is dimming or, you know, is not strong enough to penetrate the darkness, keep holding up your light, keep holding it up because it makes a difference and it matters. And every single one of us. Has the power to transform, hurtful things into good things, has the power to transform, bigotry into love.
I, I really believe that. So the, you know, first thing I would say is just keep holding up the light, keep doing the work and remember that we're all in this together. And if anyone ever feels alone, reach out to someone because one of the things I've learned in doing this work is there are far more people who want to see us make progress in diversity inclusion than there are detractors far more people, it's just unfortunate that detractors tend to have louder voices, but.
But there are so many people who are in this together, reach out to a friend, reach out to a colleague, ask for help. People love to help, and remember that you've got a whole lot of people, not just physically where you are, but around the world who want the same things and we can, we can make this vision a reality together.
Jackie: Sara. Thank you so much. That's so inspiring. And what a great way to end this episode. I appreciate your taking the time with us today and sharing your insights and the amazing work that you're doing at Boeing. Thank you so much.
Sara: Thank you, Jackie. Thank you for everything you do and creating this awareness and for inviting me on
Sara Bowen is the VP of Global Diversity and Inclusion at Boeing, a multinational aerospace company founded more than 100 years ago. How do you lead diversity, equity and inclusion at an award-winning level for more than 140,000 people worldwide? In this episode, Sara shares best practices on leading global teams, the imperative of transparent and authentic leadership, and becoming a “magnet” for high-performing diverse professionals.
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