Meaning and Value in Addressing Diversity

Most of us spend our days in workplaces and companies that do not have diversity represented in their workforce. This, of course, is not representative of the real world. As difficult as it is to address diversity, it is imperative.

Diversity is a contentious topic, because it means so many different things to different people. Diversity reflects the experience of feeling ‘other,’ yet we try to talk about diversity by lumping it into one word. We then attach to it the word “inclusivity” in the hopes of integrating people! The hard work of being inclusive comes from understanding that not everyone can share in the experiences of others. In taking on the role of learner, we open ourselves to the challenge of tackling a difficult topic.

Why does diversity matter?

A wealth of research demonstrates why diversity matters. We know that diversity makes us smarter because “research by organizational scientists, psychologists, sociologists, economists and demographers show that socially diverse groups (that is, those with a diversity of race, ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation) are more innovative than homogeneous groups.” McKinsey links diversity to increased company financial performance, also noting that gender-equality is in fact even more dramatic for women of colour because inequality starts at your first promotion. Fewer women are hired at the entry level, but even fewer women of colour are hired at that level; those that are hired experience fewer promotions to senior levels. McKinsey reports that, “as a result, one in five C-suite leaders is a woman, and fewer than one in 30 is a woman of color.” If the research is there, why then do we continue to fall short on representing the diversity of our society?

Adding to the complexity of our notions of diversity, few of us even know what words or terms to use. (In searching for a glossary of leading diversity terminology, the most promising result is produced by Sum of Us.) Most of us are afraid to have the conversation because we’re afraid we’re going to fumble and say something unintentionally insensitive or ignorant. We can be authentic and make a meaningful start by prefacing our conversations with an acknowledgement of our knowledge gaps, knowing that imperfect conversations are better than no conversations at all.

Imperfect conversations are better than no conversations at all!

How should you react or position yourself in conversations about diversity and inclusion? We may recognize our own unconscious biases, saying that we’re “colour-blind,” have “white fragility,” or that we are a “model minority” or “social justice warrior.” Maybe we put people on a pedestal of inspiration. There are many more modes of imperfectly navigating our world of diversity, including denial, aggression, micro-aggression, and more. We can only approach these conversations by interrogating our own states of (mis)understanding, and by trying to better understand the experiences of others.

An organization’s efforts towards diversity and inclusion are as important as the organization’s purpose. Like purpose, principles of diversity can only begin to work well within an organization if they are addressed and acknowledged at all levels, from strategy, to operations, to culture. Consistent commitment to diversity is paramount, especially as customers and other stakeholders are so very able to see through a façade.

So how should you step into conversations on diversity?

My two strongest pieces of advice on the complicated and controversial topic of diversity are these: start the work even though it is difficult, and don’t underestimate the power of representation.

Understand that when you do not see yourself represented in the world around you, it feels as though you don’t belong, and that holds true for both your customers and your employees. When we understand this as organizations and as individuals, we can truly begin to have united and empowering conversations about meaningful diversity.

Increasing diversity is never a linear process.

Perhaps the greatest challenge for any organization that wants to step into healthy conversations on diversity is that the process is never linear. While it’s increasingly a leadership priority, diversity initiatives also tend to be more effective when they emerge from within the organization. Each informs the other, and progress can appear slow and feel frustrating for all involved. Then progress can seem to appear ‘out of nowhere,’ as new skills take root and new habits build.

Notwithstanding that clear disclaimer that diversity efforts tend to be non-linear, here are a couple of things all organizations should think about:

  1. Do your research. Analysis of your current organizational structures will help you gather qualitative and quantitative data. Existing knowledge within your organization on diversity and inclusion may help clarify your first steps (or next steps).
  2. Embrace diversity at the leadership level. Embed diversity and inclusion in strategic planning, purpose and visioning processes for your organization. Elevating the conversation to this level both signals it’s a priority to be taken seriously and creates opportunities to begin shifting systems.
  3. Engage your talent team. Review and refine approaches to recruitment, retention and advancement of a diverse team. Staff engagement is fundamental to diversity programs; make it part of your talent management systems.
  4. Address conflict. Take steps to address conflict or workplace trauma to restore good workplace relationships through mediation, conflict management coaching, and facilitated group processes.

Finally, learn, learn and learn. Nobody has all the answers to the myriad, important questions of diversity and inclusion in the workplace. So invest in team development exercises and leadership training. Read about best practices and learn from others’ mistakes. And perhaps most importantly of all, no matter how difficult the conversations may get, stay in them. After all, we’ll succeed only when we’re all in this work together.

 

Meriko Kubota is an Affiliate Senior Consultant at Junxion, who is passionate about healthy and inclusive workplaces. She can be reached via [email protected]

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