From Diversity to Inclusion

For a long time, diversity has been a standard to which businesses, organizations, and institutions aspire. The logic goes something like this: if the workforce, board of directors, or audience is demographically varied, then we are being “fair” or “socially responsible” or “effectively serving our community.” The buzz words vary, but the goal is essentially the same – diversity. While diversity may sound like a wonderful utopian goal, it really only means demographic variety. Such variety is a simple fact of the United States in 2020, however, and therefore should be reflected in workplaces more or less by default. Diversity is an important first step, but can no longer an end goal in itself.

Let’s say you’re a business. Let’s leave aside the branding, political, or personal motives that might lead you to seek to be known as “socially responsible.” Let’s say instead that you simply want to be the best at what you do. Whatever the specific things are that would make you the best, the quality, productivity, and effectiveness of your workforce is going to be high on that list. You accept the theory that a diverse workforce is more likely to be high-quality, productive, and effective, so you want a diverse workforce.

But, how does that actually work? Does the presence of a non-white person in a mostly white office magically make everyone better at their jobs? Does being seen as a diverse workplace make you a more desirable place to work, thus attracting higher quality people? Do the managers need to be diverse, or just the entry-level people? What kind of diversity matters? What exactly counts as a diverse workplace?

Well, it’s complicated. For the sake of this example, let’s focus on racial diversity, since it’s the most obvious and the most researcched.

Having a diverse workplace, so the logic goes, increases the variety of perspectives available in making decisions. The theory is that a diverse workplace offers more points of view than a homogenous one and so will theoretically generate more creativity and more innovation. But, simply having people around from a variety of backgrounds does not guarantee that everyone is part of the decision-making or idea-generating that will make your business the best in its industry.

Let’s say your business does its work in an office setting. And let’s say that your office is mostly white, but has one or two people of color on each team and at each rank. You’ve been deliberate in creating what seems to be a diverse office, but you’re still not seeing improvements in creativity, innovation, etc. WHY?

Because diversity is not the same as inclusion. Just because there is a person of color on a team, does not mean that team, by default, is the kind of environment where each person’s contributions are welcomed. Someone who isn’t white more or less by definition has a different life experience from someone who is white. Are those experiences treated as equally valid, important, and interesting as those of white colleagues? Are subtle, even unconscious acts of belittlement being aimed at that person of color? Does your office have the kind of culture that operates as if race doesn’t matter? Any one of these issues can put a serious damper on the level and quality of contributions made by people of color.

Inclusion means actively welcoming people. In an environment that is mostly homogenous, anyone who isn’t part of the majority will likely feel in some way uncomfortable. (Obviously, everyone reacts differently to social environments, but most sociological research indicates that being part of a minority changes people’s behavior and creates some tension.) If your office is mostly white, the one person of color on a team is likely to feel pressure to represent all people of color, fear being stereotyped, or feel insecure in other ways. So, empowering that person takes special effort and a deliberate change in environment. There are a wide range of tactics for creating an inclusive environment, but having answers to the questions I posed above from the perspective of the people of color in your office is a good start.

Inclusion requires diversity, not tokenism. The challenge at the core of the scenario I’ve posed is that there are only one or two people of color in various groups. That may add up to an office that, overall, seems racially diverse. But, in the day-to-day experience of any given person of color, they are “the only one.” Team meeting? They’re the only person of color. Department meeting? Maybe they’re one of two. Orientation for new hires? Again, they stick out. If you are used to being in the majority, sticking out in this way may not seem like a big deal. But, ask anyone who has had this experience and, if you are willing to really listen, you’ll know that it’s exhausting and demoralizing to constantly be “different.”

I’ve often heard from people who research these things that the rule of three is a good one. When there’s one or two people of color in a room, they often feel that they have to represent all people of color. They may not offer their best ideas or any ideas that seem too “out there” because they feel pressured to offer the “the minority perspective,” or they may fear that any failure of theirs will reflect badly on “their people,” or that they will be confused with the other person of color in the room. All of this creates an environment where those one or two people of color are not being as creative or innovative as they might be and are likely not to stay long. But, when there are three people of color, then each person can begin to be themselves. There begins to be something approaching a critical mass that takes pressure off individuals to represent a whole people and allows them instead to represent themselves. That is when they can begin to offer their best, most creative, and most innovative ideas. That is when (assuming the culture is one of genuinely valuing differing perspectives) the value of their non-majority experience can be realized. I want to emphasize that three is a beginning, not an end goal.

So, what does an inclusive space look like?

  • It is an environment where difference is acknowledged, embraced, and appreciated.
  • It is an environment where any dress codes or codes of conduct do not disproportionally favor one racial or ethnic group over another.
  • It is an environment where micro-aggressions are rare and there is a healthy mechanism for dealing with them.
  • It is an environment where “professional conduct” is not used as code to discriminate against people who speak different dialects, have different accents, or come from poverty.
  • It is an environment that is diverse along multiple lines (racially, ethnically, religiously, etc.)
  • It is an environment where leaders actively engage with people different from themselves.
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