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02 Apr. 2012 | Comments (0)

In Does Inclusion Really Include Everyone?, I detailed the importance of ensuring that the field of D&I includes all people, highlighting the thought leadership of Thomas and Tapia who advocate for the inclusion of both marginalized and mainstream groups to make the most of the entire mix of diversity.  This post continues the dialogue, considering how we can more effectively embrace inclusion through innovative D&I strategies.  

When the field of diversity was new, the work often presumed a zero sum game: the mainstream gets everything out of the system and the marginalized gets nothing.  If one wins, the other loses.  Thus, we designed diversity strategies focusing on initiatives for marginalized populations, often at the exclusion of mainstream populations.  Although our intentions were good, we often set up oppositional camps, limiting our ability to make the most of a full mix of talent.  With this, our programs reflected an assumption that each camp was uniform within itself (e.g., all women have one kind of leadership style, and all men have another). 

These early initiatives contributed to positive progress, but not without costs to marginalized groups, mainstream groups, and the system as a whole.  More specifically, we inadvertently contributed to negative outcomes including:

  • Backlash from individuals in the mainstream who felt excluded or blamed
  • Opposition from marginalized persons who worried about perceptions that their achievements resulted from lowered standards and remedial interventions
  • Resistance from targeted groups required to compromise too much of themselves in order to fit into a mainstream system
  • Indifference from international employees to global initiatives designed without inclusively taking local differences into account
  • Disappointment with D&I strategies that didn’t make the most of the total mix of diversity to deliver the organization’s value proposition.

However, contemporary D&I initiatives can mitigate these kinds of risks by building upon a more inclusive foundation.  For example, in How Women Mean Business, Avivah Whittenburg-Cox writes that the work of gender balance requires us to address women’s challenges, but not at the expense of men.  In her rich volume on gender-balanced business, Whittenburg-Cox describes the benefits of including men and women together, enabling a complementary mix that benefits all individuals and the system as a whole.  Further, in The Inclusion Paradox, Andrés Tapia writes about continuing to address under-representation of marginalized groups without doing so at the expense of the white male.  Even more, Tapia argues that the white male should be included in ways that he also benefits.  Again, these arguments emphasize that diversity issues and opportunities include everyone, with all of our similarities and differences.

What might this approach to inclusion look like?  Let’s kick around some ideas with a common D&I initiative:  women’s leadership development programs.  Typically, they are designed for and offered only to women.  The best ones are grounded in quality research and produce measurable benefits.  However, they may not measure up to Debbe Kennedy's yardstick for D&I initiatives: everyone wins and no one is harmed.  Is there an alternate approach that allows us to address the critical issues many (though not all) women face without excluding men? 

Yes.  Let’s take training for political savvy as an example.  As research indicates that women are less likely than men to employ prevailing political tactics, such as self-promotion, necessary for career success, political savvy is a common learning module in women’s leadership programs.  However, we know from experience that some women are very politically effective while some men are not. 

Rather than assuming that all women need this training and all men don’t, a more inclusive solution might start with a political savvy course offered to every individual who needs it.  

Following the research statistics, we can expect more women to enroll, but everyone would be welcomed and included.

An even more inclusive approach would intentionally re-design organizational politics and structures to naturally work for a variety of individuals.  For example, instead of offering political savvy training, what if we shifted the onus to the organization to equitably collect key data about all its employees?  We could use this information to make relevant decisions without needing all employees to promote themselves in exactly the same way to level the playing field.   

These new approaches could be complemented with recruitment, development, succession, performance management and reward processes that recognize, appreciate and utilize different leadership styles and competencies.  Taking these potential solutions together, we might achieve the D&I outcomes for which we strive, while also mitigating the unintentional negative consequences outlined above.  We might increase the integrity of our function that has inclusion is at its core.  Moreover, we might affectively cultivate an environment that would enable leaders to emerge and perform in different ways to deliver the business goals of our organizations.

Systemic changes are challenging and currently present more questions than answers.   But it might be more sustainable and less harmful than trying to change all the individuals within a system that doesn’t fully include them. 

Share your comments below about future ways to include everyone in D&I.  Then, tune in to my next post in this series, focusing on integrating D&I into your organization.

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…

    Full Bio | More from Rebekah Steele


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