A Passion For Diversity

By Ann Pomeroy Mar 1, 2008
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HR Magazine, March 2008 A Merck & Co. leader launches ‘constituency teams’ to value similarities – and differences –worldwide.

Deborah Dagit, chief diversity officer at Merck & Co.’s Whitehouse Station, N.J., headquarters, stands just 4 feet tall, but she has a large presence in the diversity community. Dagit played a key role in passing the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990, working with then- Rep. Norman Mineta, a Democrat from California, to prevent efforts to weaken this important legislation. She also cofounded The Conference Board’s first Workforce Council on Diversity in 1993 and works regularly with other thought leaders in the field.

Dagit’s passion for diversity “permeates her life,” says Jeanne Stahl, a Merck executive on loan from the manufacturing division to work on global diversity with Dagit. “Deb is such a visionary. She [has the] ability to pull people into that future place.”

Stahl co-chairs the pilot women’s group Dagit launched in May 2007. As vice president for global diversity innovations during the startup phase, Stahl works closely with the diversity head on the first of 10 “global constituency teams” made up of senior leaders representing Merck business units and world markets. The remaining teams, to launch in early 2008, are Asians; blacks; Latinos; men; indigenous peoples; lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered; generational; interfaith; and differently able.

Members of the women’s team want to identify effective ways to develop local female leaders in each country and market to diverse female populations. The other teams will do the same for their segments of the global marketplace.

Stahl says they have been encouraged to find that women around the world share more similarities than differences. The group will use its findings to make recommendations on these issues to Chief Executive Officer Dick Clark by fall 2008, and develop additional recommendations in succeeding years.

Anant Vailaya, a former research scientist who has moved into sales as a hospital representative in the Merck vaccine division, also has high praise for Dagit’s “compelling vision.” He says she has been a sounding board and mentor.

Vailaya served two years as president of the Asia Pacific Network, one of five employee resource groups at Merck. He says Dagit’s efforts to integrate diversity into Merck’s culture include the “topdown” work of the global constituency teams as well as a “grass-roots” approach through employee resource groups. Under Dagit’s guidance, his group evolved from strictly a social network to partner with the company, develop leaders and create value in the marketplace.

From Therapist To Diversity Leader

Dagit originally planned to be a psychotherapist. After earning a Bachelor of Science degree in psychology and then completing the coursework for a master’s degree in clinical psychology, she began working with patients dealing with family issues such as marriage and childbirth.

That’s when she changed course.

“At age 24, I was working on issues I had not yet experienced in my own life,” says Dagit. Deciding that she “needed some life experience,” Dagit shifted her career sights to an area she knew plenty about through personal experience— handling disabilities.

Dagit was born with osteogenesis imperfecta, or brittle bone disease, a condition that can cause short stature and a high susceptibility to broken bones. During her 48 years, she has broken 60 bones and undergone 25 operations— “I have a lot of hardware in my legs”— but it’s clear that she has never allowed the disease to hold her back.

In 1987, she founded and managed Bridge-to-Jobs, a job placement organization, and personally placed 400 people with disabilities during a four-year period.

Insisting that people with disabilities must be included in the diversity arena along with people of differing races, ages, ethnicities, genders and sexual orientations, Dagit quickly became a leader in the field.

After holding diversity management positions at Silicon Valley companies Sun Microsystems Inc. and Silicon Graphics, Dagit was invited to become Merck’s first chief diversity officer in 2001.

In addition to implementing the company’s affirmative action and employee relations programs, including dottedline responsibility for labor relations, Dagit has integrated diversity into the culture of the organization worldwide. She has also demonstrated by example that disability accommodations are no different from flexible work arrangements for single mothers, long-distance commuters or members of any other group with individual needs.

Dagit sometimes works from home. In the office, her chair has been modified to fit her size and she carries a cane. “Merck [executives have] not been concerned about where I work, just about the outcome,” she says. “What I like is that they don’t expect something less of me. I’m seen as a positive representative for the company who is held to the same standards as other Merck employees.”

Disability: Special Gift, Challenge

“As a person with a visible disability, I have a special gift and a unique challenge,” says Dagit. Because of “my packaging, and because there are not many people with disabilities who do the work I do,” Dagit says she has been given opportunities she might otherwise not have had. “Having a disability is a tool in my toolbox,” she explains.

Dagit says her work is “difficult and complex, but it’s also interesting and fun.” As she looks for visible signs of progress, “I see the destination, not the finish line.”

Increasing the representation of others like her in diversity organizations remains a daily challenge. Although the U.S. Census Bureau reports that 51.2 million Americans have some level of disability, Dagit says she rarely sees people with visible disabilities when she goes to diversity conferences.

“There is no gathering of my tribe,” she laments. And so, Dagit challenges members of every minority group to “ask themselves if their tribe includes people with disabilities.”

As Stahl says, “Deb is always thinking about diversity. It’s her life’s work.”

Ann Pomeroy recently served as HR Magazine’s senior writer.


Deborah Dagit

Education: 1983, completed coursework toward a master’s degree in clinical psychology, San Jose State University, Calif.; 1982, Bachelor of Science in psychology, Oregon State University, Corvallis.

Current job: 2001-present, chief diversity officer, Merck & Co., Whitehouse Station, N.J.

Career: 1993-2001, director of learning, communications and diversity, Silicon Graphics, Sunnyvale, Calif.; 1991-93, senior manager, strategic cultural initiatives, Sun Microsystems, Mountain View, Calif.; 1987-91, founder, Bridge-to-Jobs, Santa Clara, Calif.

Personal: Age 48; born in San Francisco; husband Daniel Dagit; one son and two daughters.

Diversions: Traveling and attending Broadway plays and other cultural events.

Connections: Merck

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