Diversity: Stepping Up to the Challenge

This week, we take a step back from leadership to look at diversity in the workplace. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the total number employed in 2014 was over 146 million. However, not all 146 million workers in the US are going to be exactly the same. The difference between each employee is what makes a workplace diverse.

The case for diversity has never been stronger, nor more widely accepted. In the workplace, diverse workforces are more innovative and, generally, more profitable. The sheer number and variety of efforts to achieve it are also at an all-time high. No serious observer thinks that these efforts will, or should, slow down, but how are we reaching the goal and how are we measuring it to indicate real success?

First, we’d have to answer, what does diversity mean? To put it simply, diversity is the “ability to live and work with people who differ from us,” according to David Berreby in his article “Why Old Habits Die Hard.” However, diversity across time has been as variable as it is across territories.

Women were not included in many first-generation diversity efforts, which focused on racial and religious identities. And efforts to include gay people in diversity efforts, now standard in many parts of North America and Western Europe, were almost unheard of until recently. The same could be said about efforts to include people with disabilities. Sometimes it seems that just as your diversity materials catch up with the latest cultural change, a new one appears on the horizon.

Diversity is a moving target; it cannot be reduced to specific measures aimed at specific groups of people. What works in one place will fail in another; what is cutting edge in one time may be inadequate a decade later. As diversity increases, social capital decreases. Yet, one lesson of diversity is that the comfort of social capital is not the best thing for an organization.

As the conscious mind accepts the value of diversity, the unconscious mind tries to protect its social capital, quite outside of our awareness. Much of the behavior that forestalls diversity is entirely unconscious. In our minds, dealing with those who are like us – who understand what we mean without needing much explanation, who share experiences and an outlook – feels comfortable and reassuring. It is not consciously hostile to those who aren’t at the table, but it has the same effect. The biases that keep us from including new kinds of people exert their effects outside of our field of awareness.

The process of diversity requires flexibility, openness to change, self-awareness and self-discipline. True diversity, which lets an organization welcome all talent and thus benefit from inclusion, is a state of mind. We hope that our young readers will make a conscious effort to fight our unconscious to promote diversity.

naisA Global is a 501(c)(3) non-profit educational organization dedicated to helping talented young Asian professionals unlock their potential and become great leaders.