26 Mar. 2012 | Comments (0)

More than two decades ago, Dr. R. Roosevelt Thomas explained that diversity includes everyone.  In emphasizing this point, he took care to spell out that this includes marginalized groups as well as prevailing populations – for e.g. white males – (HBR, From Affirmative Action to Affirming Diversity, 1990).  Thomas discussed diversity as the total mix of similarities and differences in a population, as he challenged efforts to assimilate women and minorities into a dominate white, male culture and advocated efforts to create a new dominate heterogeneous culture inclusive and enabling to all.  Adding to this, he proposed ways diversity could help organizations deliver their value propositions.  Based on my research and experiences with diversity at that time, these were radical ways of looking at diversity in North America, and it re-framed the foundation of my work. 

More recently, in The Inclusion Paradox (2009), Andrés Tapia proposed that contemporary Diversity and Inclusion strategies benefit from a both/and approach (for example, both men and women), an orientation consistent with Thomas’ argument.  In contrast to traditional Diversity initiatives that target certain groups, Tapia explained that our work needs to call out and navigate a full range of individual and group differences if we are to unleash “the true creative contributions of diverse perspectives that play off each other and lead to better work relationships, greater innovation, and profitability that benefit individuals, teams and organizations.” 

Many diversity frameworks have changed to reflect a more inclusive perspective.  Old definitions of diversity in the US, for example, were typically limited to race and gender differences, with Diversity work centering on hiring and promoting more racial minorities and women.  However, more inclusive contemporary definitions don’t pin diversity on being different from the mainstream.  Diversity is now commonly described as the uniqueness that each person brings to an organization, or the total mix of relevant differences of people associated with an organization.  Current definitions are also generally supplemented with an expanded list of differences, which may include race and gender, as well as nationality, culture, beliefs, sexual orientation, ability, and functional expertise, as well as cognitive or leadership styles.  And the scope of work has expanded beyond hiring and promotion to enabling a broad mix of different people to achieve organizational goals. Aligned with these changes, this field of work is now commonly called Diversity and Inclusion (or sometimes Inclusion and Diversity, or simply Inclusion) to emphasize the work of creating inclusive environments and developing systems and competencies that enable the navigation of differences to make the most of a diverse mix of people working together. 

But how well have we integrated Thomas’ call to include everyone?  Have we genuinely engaged with the true spirit of a both/and approach?  Do we truly integrate everyone into our D&I work?  And, if not, how can we work in ways that ensure that everyone benefits, that none are excluded, and that all are accountable? 

Commonly in D&I, we have specific initiatives that address one group of people and a single dimension of diversity at a time.  Consider, for example, leadership programs designed and offered to one group, mentoring initiatives specific to one population, employee resource groups that break people into different groups.  There are two important challenges in this approach.  First, there is a danger that these efforts will exclude certain groups, suggesting that D&I work only applies to certain types of people.  Second, these efforts can carry some heavy assumptions about people who share one social location, treating these individuals as homogenous and defined by a single identity.  For example, are all women really the same kind of leader?  Are all men?  Of course not. 

To seize the real and complete power of a diverse and inclusive workplace, we need to find ways to engage all people as we also recognize the full complexity within the groups we engage, the great diversity among, for example, white, heterosexual, able-bodied men, among aboriginal females with disabilities, among Asian gay men, among Latina Millennials, and the list goes on.  As Tapia writes, we cannot neglect the “unfinished business of under-representation in management and leadership” but diversity does not require us to do this work at the expense of anyone.  Although this is complex work, it is not a zero sum game.

In my next blog, I will expand on this topic to explore how we can address the general patterns of challenges, needs and opportunities within one group while also recognizing the diversity within that group and the overlapping interests and needs with other groups.

View our complete listing of Diversity & Inclusion blogs.

  • About the Author: Rebekah Steele

    Rebekah Steele

    Rebekah Steele is a senior fellow providing diversity & inclusion (D&I) expertise for The Conference Board. She serves as program director for both the Diversity & Inclusion Executives and…

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