How to Improve Workplace Diversity in Pittsburgh

A coalition of Pittsburghers is working to make inclusion an integral part of the hiring process and creating spaces where people feel as if they belong.

Diversity Web

There is a narrative about Pittsburgh that isn’t on any promotional material and one that community leaders are working hard to change.

“Pittsburgh has been a place of prosperity and opportunity for white people, and it has been a place of negative interactions, lack of opportunity and elevation and equity for people of color, specifically Black people,” says Sabrina Saunders Mosby, president and CEO of Vibrant Pittsburgh. “I’m working specifically to change that narrative, because we know that there is reality in the narrative.”

In 2019, The City of Pittsburgh’s Gender Equity Commission released an extensive report that found that, compared to similar cities, Black women here have a higher maternal mortality rate, the white-Black employment gap is higher, and public schools refer more students of color to the police.



“But there are most certainly positive stories. There are companies that are investing in changing that reality, which, in turn, changes the narrative for the region if we communicate and share the story,” Mosby says.

For The Pittsburgh Promise, positive stories start with 14-year-olds.

On the first day of school, all ninth graders in Pittsburgh Public Schools and its charters are handed the metaphorical keys to The Pittsburgh Promise. Over the next four years, if they remain continuously enrolled and graduate with at least a 2.5 G.P.A. and an attendance record of at least 90 percent, they are eligible to receive up to $5,000 a year in scholarship funding — for up to five years — toward college, trade or technical schools in Pennsylvania.

The Pittsburgh Promise began in 2006 and, by 2008, had received a 10-year, $100 million seed investment from UPMC, among other funding. Scholarships began with the 2008 graduating class and are planned to continue through the class of 2028. Founding Director Saleem Ghubril says while the scholarship is the bulk of the Promise’s work, the organization also promotes higher education in and of itself and tries to “add preparedness and diversity to the region’s workforce.”

Access to equitable secondary education and affordable post-secondary education is difficult in Pennsylvania. The state’s funding structure, which relies heavily on property taxes, results in educational race and class disparities among the greatest in the country.

“Just by virtue of being born in Pennsylvania, you’re at a competitive disadvantage,” Ghubril says. “[The] ZIP code where you live ends up having a dramatic impact on the opportunities that you have.”

Ghubril says the K-12 public school system was “designed to prepare people for family-sustaining wages, but that’s no longer relevant.”

Pennsylvania is also home to the third most expensive public college system, making a post-secondary education harder to obtain. But, without a college degree, a young adult’s job prospects and chances for economic advancement shrink.

So far, 10,000 students have received Promise scholarships, totalling $150 million. The district’s average for Promise utilization, however, is only in the mid-60 percent range; two schools had rates of just 11 percent and 19 percent, respectively. To that end, Ghubril says, they’ve placed 10 Promise coaches inside the three high schools with the lowest engagement: Perry (North Side), Milliones (Hill District) and Carrick. The coaches work full-time in order to help students meet eligibility requirements, which also means helping to increase the graduation rate.

As most people did, Ghubril kept an eye on the events of this summer after George Floyd’s death. He’s pleased to see that the larger conversation is shifting to include not just diversity and inclusion, but also equity. This is defined as focusing on equal distribution of resources — equality — making sure people have the resources they need in order to have proportional representation.

“We’re inviting [the corporate sector] to be a part of that work with us: elevating our locals and looking at the public school system as a place that you can benefit greatly from in your diversity, inclusion and equity efforts, and it’s not going to deliver the kind of quality that you wish without your investment in it.”

Hundreds of companies in Pittsburgh have donated to the fund and more than 600 have hired students who used the Promise. “If you want a [return on investment], the ROI is going to come in the form of an employee,” says Ghubril.

In another part of the workplace diversity ecosystem, the team at Vibrant Pittsburgh helps local businesses articulate and realize their goals regarding diversity and inclusion.

Vibrant Pittsburgh, founded in 2010, began by focusing on the immigrant population and, over the years, broadened to what Mosby describes as “diversity seen and unseen.”

As with the Pittsburgh Promise, Vibrant Pittsburgh seeks to retain and elevate Pittsburghers; it also wants to attract outside talent.

Pittsburgh can be a tough city to plug into even for someone who grew up here. Ghubril says, “Pittsburgh has been described as very friendly, but not necessarily a very welcoming, city.” Part of inclusion is creating spaces that go beyond friendliness and turn welcoming into belonging: the difference between “my house and my workplace” and “our house and our workplace.”

With the goal of facilitating welcoming relationships, Vibrant Pittsburgh offers Dine Arounds, where community leaders host gatherings in their homes for executives of color who are new to the region. Dine Arounds “create an opportunity for culture and community-building specifically,” says Mosby. The organization gives similar opportunities to college students through their Connection Accelerator Mentorship Program (CAMP). Mosby says that the city has an abundance of talented college students who are recruited outside the region upon graduation. “We’re hoping that they’re building roots and that connectivity is what will help to keep them here.”

When businesses reach out to Vibrant Pittsburgh for help, Mosby says, “We recognize that people are at different places within this particular journey.” They may, for instance, become a Vibrant Pittsburgh member in order to check off a diversity requirement, but, by seeing what comparable businesses are doing elsewhere, “we can use positive peer pressure to help open their eyes to what they want to be ultimately as a company.”

Vibrant Pittsburgh frames its advice in what all businesses understand: money. Mosby says, “We know that this is not just the right thing to do. Diversity of individuals and diversity of thought is better for the bottom line.” Diverse workplaces have increased innovation, profit, employee satisfaction and — in the case of Millennials and Gen Zers — loyalty. And yet, according to a 2017 Salesforce survey, only 36 percent of respondents said their companies were actively working on diversity.

Paul Spradley


In Pittsburgh, Dollar Bank has a long history of intentional inclusion. When it opened in 1855, there were no racial restrictions for opening an account and women were able to be the sole legal owners of their accounts. Paul Spradley, Assistant Vice President of Diversity, Inclusion, and Equity at Dollar Bank, says that the ethos of Dollar Bank was that “every person has value, and every dollar has value.”

In that way, Dollar Bank exemplifies what happens when, from a business perspective, companies focus not just internally, but also externally on diversity. Spradley says that the Latinx community is the largest marginalized spending group in the United States, followed by African Americans. By not expanding their markets to accommodate these groups, companies leave billions of dollars on the table.

Thinking outside of well-worn markets is a product of an inclusive organization. Spradley says, “There’s a lot of research that’s already out there that suggests that even the most well-meaning folks may have bias in their hiring practices. There might be a patriarchal culture in an organization where the men not only make the decisions, but they are the ones creating space for other people, that are making decisions on behalf of folks that are not like them.”

In its report, “How to Enhance Organizational Diversity,” The Heinz Endowments advises that diverse hiring practices start with wording a job posting so that it doesn’t include implicit bias. Other suggestions include recruiting outside of established connections that produce homogenous groups of candidates, making sure to have more than one diverse applicant within finalists for the job, and having diverse members on the hiring and interviewing team.

How Dollar Bank responded to this summer’s racial reckoning is what attracted Spradley to leave consulting and join the company. “They were committed on a different level,” he says. This new job allows him to push leadership to “be intentional, be adaptive, be responsive. That means we’re going to have the conversations, we’re going to do it with some frequency, we’re going to engage and solicit feedback from the employees about their experiences, we’re going to adjust policies and procedures.”

In his work as a consultant, Spradley would meet executives who would agree that diversity and inclusion efforts were a good idea, but that they thought, “We should hire the best candidate.” He says, “So there’s two assumptions that are being made from that exchange. The first assumption is that there aren’t any qualified candidates of color. The second — this ties to unconscious bias — is what seems to be the right candidate is someone like [the executive].”

Spradley says that non-marginalized CEOs might feel like “it’s challenging for me to think about sharing space, power, resources with somebody else (who) might not make the same kinds of decisions.”

Spradley also sees pushback around rhetoric, such as the surge of mainstream use of the word “privilege.” Rather than argue about that specific word, he encourages people he works with to “go back to the practices of what it means for us to create inclusive spaces — and that means, in some spaces, just being quiet and listening for a little bit if you’re the leader of the group.”

This summer found more and more people willing to start listening. Mosby says, “We’re talking about race, we’re talking about racism, we’re talking about equity and inequity, we’re talking about poverty in a different way. We’re talking about Pittsburgh in a completely different way. We’re actually having real genuine conversations. And it’s about time.”

As Vibrant Pittsburgh’s members create their diversity and inclusion goals, “what we tend to get to at the end of the day,” says Mosby, “is that this work is really about changing hearts and minds. But the difficult part of that is once you realize it, you also then realize how hard that is … that’s the long haul.”

From the perspective of both Spradley and Mosby, instituting and following through with inclusive policies is a good place to start. She says, “By creating policy changes, you open up your culture for more deep and intentional conversation and learning and connectivity.”

In June, Vibrant Pittsburgh released the Vibrant Index, created out of responses from 50 local companies regarding diversity, equity and inclusion. The index covers a broad spectrum of inclusive benefits and policies including paid parental and family leave, LGBTQIA+ healthcare, and dress code policies that allow for diverse clothing and hairstyles.

Vibrant Index 2.0 is set for release in early 2021. Mosby is hoping for 100 participants and says it will include elements surrounding the pandemic: equitable layoffs, salary reductions, and bringing people back to work. “We believe that you measure what matters,” she says.

What also matters is that people like Spradley, Ghubril and Mosby and companies and organizations like Dollar Bank, The Pittsburgh Promise and Vibrant Pittsburgh are not alone in their efforts toward diversity, inclusion, and equity in the city.

“My encouragement is that we’ve got a lot of really good things to start and build on,” says Spradley. “What would happen if we just were collectively intentional about diversity, equity and inclusion in the workplace? Once you change that, now you’re changing if people want to stay in Pittsburgh.”

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