Diversity has long been a part of our society. We had diversity when Rosa Parks was asked to give up her seat on a bus to a White man. We had diversity when Indigenous children in Canada were removed from their families and forced into residential schools. We had diversity when women had to fight for their right to vote. We had diversity when my father was told not to hire more immigrants or people of colour. And we even have diversity today when rates of hate crimes against Muslims have increased by 253 percent. Diversity is not the solution to harmonious interactions and improved understanding between different groups of people; inclusion is.
When people feel like they belong, when their needs are validated and advocated for, they and the groups they belong to thrive. In fact, recent findings suggest that teams who are not only diverse, but inclusive, make better business decisions up to 87 percent of the time, and are 35 percent more likely to be economically successfulcompared to industry means and be moreinnovative.
But for inclusion to occur, we need to understand what it feels like to be someone we are not; we need to relate. And that ability to relate can only occur through communication that comes with a healthy relationship. Yet up to 94 percent of people from marginalized group, and even half of straight white men, say they need to hide elements of their personal identity at work.
Two false assumptions are responsible:
1. That we’ve resolved issues of inequity in our society and our workplace.
2. That we’ve resolved this inequity by treating everyone the same and thus expecting everyone to be the same.
Resolving Assumption 1:
Although we may have resolved more glaring aspects of injustice (e.g., women’s right to vote) in our society, more subversive and insidious elements of injustice still remain. These are more difficult to see because they are psychological and based on how we think. For example, most people would agree that equality among people is an important value. But despite this we still have a gender pay gap, we still prefer to hire peoplewhose names don’t sound “ethnic“, and we still see a lack of representation of diversity in leadership.
Despite what we think we believe, our non-verbal communication reflects a bias suggesting that the dominant culture of the majority is preferred, leaving little room for those with different identities to feel included.
Marginalized people, such as minorities and women, experience inequities and indignities regularly. But if those around them feel these issues don’t exist or have been resolved, this creates (a) complacency that prevents resolution of the problem and (b) a situation where a victim of a real problem feels like their concerns are being minimized. This further maintains the feeling of being an outsider.
Resolving Assumption 2:
Our society’s history with segregating people based on their differences (e.g., the “coloured section”), can make recognizing differences in today’s modern and diverse society, feel like we are repeating the problem. The resulting anxiety can make us ignore differences or acknowledge them in a token or stereotyped way. This minimizes the rich complexity of people’s experiences needed for better understanding and is the crux of the dilemma with many individual and organizational approaches to inclusion.
Being blind to differences (e.g., “I don’t see colour.” or “We are all the same.”) also usually leaves the dominant culture (or White Eurocentric culture) as the standard, maintaining the inequity we anxiously have been trying to avoid. For example, we sterilize “the holiday season” by avoiding the word “Christmas” but the entirety of Christmas practices remain. And yet the holidays (e.g., Chinese New Year, Eid, Rosh Hashanah, Divali) of other North Americans remain vacant from work, school, and statutory holiday schedules.
What we’ve failed to realize is that civil rights movements were meant to create an equity of opportunity and experience among people, despite differences not because of them. They were not meant to erase the elements of identity or differences in experiences. Where we once isolated people due to their identities, we should now integrate those identities and the corresponding different world views into our current policies and practices. This is the inclusion that leads to organizational success.
Both of the above assumptions, or any assumptions for that matter, are due to a lack of information. Fear of offending others, or simple complacency, reduce the quality of the relationships we have with others and undermine the experiences of those who’ve been discriminated against. In the context of relationships (personal or work), this creates a power dynamic where it can be perceived that one person sees themselves as better than the other. What would that do for productivity? When we examine these problems in the context of relationships, the outcome is difficult to ignore.
Imagine you’re in a relationship but your partner only hangs up photos of themselves and their family, but none of you and yours. And yet we still don’t see diversity accurately represented in media or organizational material.
Imagine you’re in a relationship and your partner always insists on making major decisions, because they know best. And yet people of colour, in specific women of colour, are rarely seen in leadership roles, undermined for their knowledge and credibility.
Imagine you’re in a relationship, but your partner never wants to celebrate your birthday. But when they finally agree to do so, they insist you celebrate it at the same time they celebrate theirs. And theirs mustremain the primary birthday. And yet different cultural holidays are not marked as civic holidays, and people from different cultural groups have difficulty obtaining time off for holidays important to them.
There are many processes that can be implemented to address inclusion, but the solution, at its heart, is really just about getting to know each other better; by asking and not assuming. The solution is also about getting past the complacent assumption that the way we have been doing things is automatically the best. Traditional or historical practices sometimes reflect only a singular perspective, at a time in our history when we assumed or expected society to be less diverse than today’s modern pluralistic world. True inclusion is about constantly learning about the people we are with, because diversity, like people and relationships, is ever changing, ever growing.