Over the past fifty years in America, awareness of diversity seems to have grown exponentially. Lately, attention has shifted to a broader debate over what exactly is diversity. And, as a secondary issue perhaps, what does it mean in the workplace?
THE EASY ANSWER—especially for a person such as me, who primarily practices as an employment lawyer—is to define diversity in the workplace as “making sure that the workplace has people of different ages and genders, from different races, national origins and religions, and accommodates people with disabilities.”
AN EYE-OPENING WORKSHOP
A more comprehensive answer takes more thought, contemplation and analysis. It necessarily is more difficult. In 2011, I participated in the Good Government Initiative, a program in South Florida for early-career elected officials that exposes them to the community as a whole, and to each other, in an effort to make them better elected officials. The program included several field trips as well as seminars on budgeting, zoning, the environment and ethics. A day-long workshop on diversity was also on the agenda.
Admittedly, I had some preconceived notions about diversity. As an employment lawyer, I have taken the Supreme Court of Florida’s class to become a “certified diversity trainer.” As such, part of my job is to train a client’s employees about the implementation of the equal employment opportunity policies. So I thought I knew quite a bit about diversity. However, as the diversity workshop progressed, my preconceived notions were blown away.
Angela Park, the founder and executive director of Diversity Matters, was the main speaker. She has worked at the White House, developed initiatives at the Center for Policy Alternatives and served as deputy director of the Environmental Leadership Program, a nonprofit leadership development organization for the environmental field. She was a Beltway policy wonk who took her knowledge and talent to an organic farm in Vermont. And she is not even 5 feet tall! That’s a lot of power in a little package, which is saying something in a room full of elected officials.
Park broke diversity down for us and explained that it is a system-level concept, not an individual one. Considering that workplace diversity discussions tend to focus so much on individual rights, this viewpoint interested me. The system-level concept is not just centered on diversity in gender, race, national origin, age, religion, sexual orientation and disability. It also includes factors such as appearance, education, occupation, level within an organization, thinking style, political affiliation, class, language, marital status, parental status, and whether a person is introverted or extroverted. Given this overarching view of diversity, Park then put us in situations where we could see how our own diversity affects the decisions we make and how we present ourselves.
In one exercise, she had all of us self-identify in a number of different ways. It started simply. Are you a man or woman? Are you black, white or Hispanic? An introvert or extrovert? Jewish, Catholic, Protestant or something else? The categories quickly left the comfort zone of polite conversation. Are you homosexual, heterosexual or bisexual? A Republican, Democrat or Independent? In a room filled by elected officials, the most challenging question for participants to honestly disclose was their party affiliation because most local officials engage in contests where they are not aligned with the major political parties. It generated a great deal of discomfort for many in the group—even more than the inquiry about sexual orientation.
We discussed what kinds of diversity were most important in our communities, and it differed for each of us. We then explored the concept that diversity is centered around inclusion, both the process and the culture of inclusion. Not inclusion of an individual, but true inclusion of the group.
Observing and noticing others is how we start to be more inclusive. Noticing is an intentional skill, not something that you just wait to happen. As Park pointed out, when observing and noticing, a person must assess the situation in light of his or her own biases. To consider one’s bias, one must become aware of it. Yet doing so is not as easy as it sounds.
Which bring us back to the question, What concepts make up diversity? As noted earlier, diversity cannot be summed up only in gender, race and religion; it is also all of those other system-level concepts that we must be aware of when assessing the situation around us. This is true in our work life and our social life.
UNDERSTANDING POWER DYNAMICS
Differences matter, and they certainly are important, but embracing diversity is not about making sure you have a certain number of “this” and “that.” It is about being aware of the differences among people and understanding that a power dynamic is created by those differences. And, of course, there lies the rub. Once a person—whether a boss, employee, friend, colleague or neighbor—becomes aware that the real issue is a power dynamic, that’s when you really start to talk about the essence of diversity and what it means. Power dynamics are why differences make a difference. In every relationship there is a dominant and subordinate side. One side is advantaged; the other is disadvantaged. One is up, one down. Information does not always flow between the two sides easily.
The advantaged person enjoys many privileges. Advantaged (or dominants) are those who make the rules, receive the benefit of the doubt, see things in their own way, intentionally make and effect change, and demand progress. In those same relationships the disadvantaged (or subordinates) are those who must follow the rules, see things through a group lens, worry about the impact of their decisions rather than intent, and see progress as an uphill battle. When you think about diversity as a series of interactions between advantaged and disadvantaged actors, empathy can flow between the two groups more easily because very rarely is any person always advantaged or dominant. Instead, each person is disadvantaged or subordinate in one group or another. This mode of thinking creates significant empathy for subordinates because each of us is a subordinate some of the time.
To briefly return to an earlier point: Why did our group of elected officials have so much trouble self-identifying about political affiliation? We learned it is because of the power—or the perception of power—that derives from party affiliation.
BRINGING DIVERSITY HOME
After this workshop, I discussed these diversity concepts with a neighbor who is the vice president of human resources at a Fortune 500 company. He would likely be considered the quintessential nonminority: white, middle-aged, male, Anglo-Saxon, educated. Yet he was sensitive to the nuances that Park had introduced to me, and acknowledged them. We pondered how all people have to assess the situations in which they find themselves to determine where they fall in the power dynamic. Gender, race, religion and the other obvious factors certainly come into play, but just as often, the group differences are more subtle and less identifiable.
In 2008, I wrote about diversity for another ABA magazine. I concentrated on how far we had advanced in terms of diversity as a nation. My column celebrated our diversity and pointed out that our children do not even fully understand what diversity is because it is not diverse to them—it is normal. I took some flak for that because it implied, to a degree, that we had already arrived at the destination of true diversity. My recent workshop experience has made me realize that we have come a long way, but we cannot rest on our accomplishments. We must continue to weigh and measure what diversity means, and how power relationships shape our work and social lives. We need to move beyond just race, gender and religion, and take account of all the things that separate us and bind us together. Only when we include and consider everyone’s opinions and viewpoints can we move toward a real and honest diversity.