Diversity and Inclusion By D&I Consultant Sinead Kane
In the current globalisation context, companies are facing an increasing diversification of their workforce and customers. The development of national, European and international regulations for the last number of years, has gradually raised awareness about the critical importance of non‐discrimination in workplaces. Creating an inclusive culture for a diverse workforce requires becoming conscious of social identities and seeing how they are experienced in a particular context, such as the workplace. Rather than assume everyone is the same (or should be), it is crucially important to seek to understand how differences in identities and experiences inform how we interact with our surroundings and each other. Identities based in race, gender, sexuality, class and ability (to name a few) and their intersections play a large role in how one might differently experience and navigate interpersonal dynamics, policies, practices and systems within an organisation.
What is diversity and what is inclusion?
Diversity refers to differences among people and can encompass many characteristics, including race, gender, ethnic group, age, personality, cognitive style, organisational function, education, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, physical ability, religious belief, and political ideology. Diversity refers to representation of difference,
Inclusion refers to how differences are meaningfully incorporated and integrated into daily practices.
What do we mean by equity versus equality?
Notions of equality are generally associated with assumptions of sameness; when everyone is treated the same and gets the same things, this is assumed to ensure that everyone is treated fairly. However, treating everyone the same will exacerbate and reproduce inequalities. Why? Because it actively obscures and denies relevant differences, including how different groups have historically been treated. This may seem counterintuitive. However, there are many examples that demonstrate how treating everyone the same (i.e., equality) is often more unfair than taking measures that specifically respond to different needs (i.e., equity). A metaphor that is commonly used between equality and equity involves imagining a race in which every runner is given the same size shoe to wear. It is assumed, of course, that all things would be equal if everyone gets the same shoe. Those whose feet happen to fit well into the shoes can expect to run a relatively comfortable race. They may even enjoy it and, thanks to their arbitrary advantage of having feet that fit into the provided footwear, they may also be more likely to win. However, this will not be the case for everyone else whose feet are too big, small, flat or wide.
Diversity Programs – Are businesses asking the right questions?
For a diversity program to be successful, companies must create work environments in which workers feel valued, respected, included, and safe. Employees should not feel a need to repress parts of their persona in the workplace, but minorities often do. Well-designed programs are key to benefiting from diversity, but they do not come without challenges. Workplaces should ask themselves are we asking ourselves the right questions when trying to be more equitable and inclusive? A good way to start would be to ask,
- “Who is not represented at the table?
- In what ways have we kept some people out?”
These questions invite examination of potentially exclusionary aspects within an organisation’s policies, practices, and culture. Asking who is not at the table places responsibility on the organisation to be more inclusive so that a diversity of people can be part of it. Organisation would benefit from making the effort to shift its own practices, policies and structures in ways that affirm, support and embrace difference. Back to our metaphor - equality gives everyone the same shoe. An equity approach would recognise that fairness requires giving everyone shoes that fit their particular needs so that they have an equal opportunity to thrive and succeed. Rather than ignoring or denying differences, equity and inclusion require responding to concrete differences across identity, experience and historical realities.
Understanding interpersonal dynamics is a powerful way to assess an organisation’s culture and level of inclusivity with respect to a range of interactions that span from the hiring process to meetings to performance evaluations. Simply having more women in leadership does not necessarily mean an organisation is suddenly more inclusive; the culture at the top can still be hostile, especially if one is the lone woman in the room. For this reason, it is not enough to empower women to become leaders. Many women and people from marginalised groups are already quite skilled and fully capable of leading, but the influence of bias presents additional challenges for them as leaders. Thus, in addition to hiring and promoting more women and people from other historically marginalised groups into leadership positions, removing barriers that hinder their opportunities to lead should be of equal priority. Providing intentional support is also helpful to nurture their success and retain them as leaders.
Challenges for those trying to investigate workplace inequality
Challenges for those trying to investigate workplace inequality is that employers almost exclusively possess the relevant information on workforce demographics, hiring, promotion, compensation, employment policies and practices. Without this information, it’s hard to properly assess, let alone strive for effective solutions. Companies keep close guard this information, motivated to conceal anything that could even remotely reveal or substantiate any claims of bias. One way that companies resist transparency is by using the: diversity as trade secret argument, a strategy that has been gaining traction. Many companies have adopted this argument to block access to workforce demographic data. For example, the big tech companies have been doing this in many legal cases involving diversity. This continued resistance to transparency has made it difficult to both fully understand the nature of the diversity problem in the technology industry and how to properly strategise to move forward. If tech companies truly view diversity as a competitive advantage capable of impressing recruits and key clients, wouldn't this same audience be impressed if the companies shared their diversity programs and success stories showcasing their steadfast commitment to equal opportunity and related progress in the workplace?
Building a diverse organisation requires significant effort and commitment. It will not be fast or easy. In the past six years, tech companies have made improvements but are nowhere near parity. There is still a long way to go in the D&I sector but this uphill battle is not impossible. We need to remain hopeful and keep advocating for D&I issues.