We both had strong responses when we saw this recent tweet:
Let us count all the ways this email was biased – calling someone a “diversity,” recognizing that she is too senior (and thus overqualified), but sending her profile anyway just to falsify the diversity of the pool. It is also unprofessional – emailing the candidate a message like this (and the follow-up), and wasting the organization’s time (as well as the candidate’s) by forwarding her profile.
This happens all too often, and shows why organizations need to more effectively educate their leaders and their employees about diversity. The fact is that the president of this recruitment firm clearly does not even know what diversity actually is!
What is Diversity?
Right now, could you turn to a friend and define diversity in clear terms? Would you feel confident about your definition? In our workshops and teaching, we are floored by how often people do not actually know what diversity is. Both senior leaders new to taking action on diversity and passionate advocates who truly care about issues of equity in organizations have, in our interactions, struggled to give a simple and straightforward explanation of diversity.
Diversity describes whether a particular group includes individuals who come from different backgrounds on a given dimension. This would be a diverse group. When groups have individuals who come from the same background on a given dimension, we call them homogenous.
Let’s walk through this definition.
Diversity is a Property of Groups
First, diversity is a property of groups. Sometimes this surprises people. We once had a senior executive write us after a session, passionately arguing against this definition of diversity. He said “My wife is diversity – she comes from a lower social class background, from an indigenous population. How can you say she is not diverse?”
We are not trying to minimize the complexity of any individual’s background or experience. People can have multiple different backgrounds, many experiences, or multiple identities, they can be multicultural or multiracial, or have global experience. An individual in a group can represent diversity for that group – but they are not “diverse” in and of themselves.
In other words, whether or not this senior executive’s wife represents diversity depends upon the composition of the rest of the group. In a group of senior executives, she likely represents diversity. In a group of friends from her hometown, she might not because they are likely to share her identities.
Because diversity is a property of groups, no one is “diverse” on their own.
Define the Dimension of Diversity
When we talk about diversity, we have to specify what dimension of diversity we are talking about. A group that has both racial minorities and majorities is diverse in terms of race. A group that has both women and men is diverse in terms of the gender binary. A group that has both LGBTQ+ and heterosexual individuals is diverse in terms of sexual orientation and gender identity. This applies to all sorts of social identities – social class, disability status, learning differences and neurodiversity, veteran status, religion, nationality, and many others. You can even imagine a multifunctional team that is diverse in terms of expertise, but not demographically.
Taking the senior executive’s example above, in any given group his wife could represent diversity on the dimensions of gender, social class, or ethnicity in a given group, depending upon who else is a member. Imagine a group of black women who found a start-up. Their company leadership is not diverse in terms of race and gender. However, in the context of entrepreneurship, they represent diversity on both the dimensions of race and gender. Realistically, no organization or work team can be diverse in terms of every social identity that exists, which means that virtually all organizations and all teams can be thoughtful about other dimensions of diversity on which they can improve.
When People Don’t Understand Diversity, Things Can Go Wrong
In our consulting, we have noticed two ways in which things go wrong when people don’t understand diversity. First, people talk past each other. This happens when change agents in a company want to advocate for greater diversity on a given dimension – let’s say race – but leaders keep refocusing the conversation on other dimensions – for example, gender. This can happen because it's more comfortable to talk about one dimension than another, because of inherent biases people hold, or simply because they do not understand that, to be effective, all conversations about diversity need to specify concretely the dimensions of focus at that time.
When leaders fail to understand the importance of specifying the dimension of diversity, some of the people in their organization may start to feel left out or ignored, which fosters resentment and negativity. For example, let’s say we know a group is diverse on one dimension – nationality. That group might not be diverse in terms of other characteristics – let’s say gender or race. Imagine a senior leadership team that is all White men, but who come from different nations. A D&I specialist going into that senior leadership team might start a conversation under the impression that this group is not diverse (because they are not, in terms of gender, race, etc.). This could be a bad starting point because this group of senior leaders likely feels like they are diverse – in terms of nationality. In this situation, the D&I leads were seen as biased and disingenuous, because they had started a conversation presuming low diversity among the senior leadership team. And the senior leadership team felt that the differences among them were being ignored. Repositioning the conversation around dimensions of diversity – and why different dimensions need to be attended to – cleared the room of tension and allowed everyone to move forward.
1. Revise your language. The terms “diversity candidate,” “she is diversity,” or even “I am diverse,” are simply wrong. Revise to “candidates who diversify the pool,” “she represents diversity in terms of gender,” or “in this context, I diversify the racial makeup of the company.”
2. Educate and correct others when you see the term diversity being used incorrectly. Perhaps one of the diversity advocates in your organization uses the term wrongly, perhaps you now can see that some of your colleagues might have felt left out due to the way diversity was represented before, or perhaps you realize that the conversation about diversity at your company is too general and fails to specify the dimensions of focus or priority. To restart the conversation, share this article, or discuss these ideas with your colleagues.
3. Ask why your company is focusing on a specific dimension of diversity. Often, in organizations, our key areas of focus are those where there have been bias or discrimination in the past, that have long needed to be corrected. But because our language around diversity is so broad and general, that doesn’t come across. Reshape the conversation to acknowledge this. If everyone can agree (or see the data) showing the evidence of bias or discrimination in the past, then it’s hard for anyone to resist efforts to support and promote diversity. In other words, clarifying the definition of diversity can create conversations that can move you toward your goals on whatever dimension of diversity you’re working on.
4. Remember that every dimension of diversity intersects with others. If a company’s focus is on gender or race right now, proactively bring to mind many examples of people who have that characteristic. If you are thinking about women, proactively think about Black women, disabled women, or trans women to ensure that you do not inadvertently centre the conversation on White, abled, cisgender women. The point of thinking in terms of dimensions of diversity is to help us focus, but we have to ensure it doesn’t become a new mechanism of exclusion.
Get in Touch
Our favorite part of teaching is the end of class, when students come to chat with us about the content, share examples from their own lives, ask questions about what they are struggling with, and challenge our thinking. We invite you to do the same – let us know how this exercise worked for you, what you are still struggling with, and what questions we can answer in our upcoming podcasts and newsletters.
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