As intuitive as the refrain “diversity matters” appears, achieving greater diversity in the workplace is less instinctual and a harder task to implement than one would hope. Addressing diversity cannot be done without acknowledging the growing divide in power that contributes to inequality – diversity and inequality are part and parcel of one of the greatest imbalances brought to light in 2020. At this particular moment in time, I feel we are in the early innings of a once-in-a-generation opportunity to strive for diverse, equal inclusion to help manage this global humanitarian challenge of social parity, ranging from the complexity of equal rights to the basic need for equitable pay. What is inequality, and what role does it play in inhibiting or encouraging diversity?
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic impacted billions of lives, taking a disproportionate toll on vulnerable populations, we have witnessed a steady divide and widening gap between the elite and people without education, steady employment, adequate income, or access to healthcare, all suffering a heightened risk to their lives and livelihoods. The COVID-19 pandemic not only exacerbated these challenges, but underscored an even deeper broken system that segmented part of the population that is most vulnerable: the ‘cogs of the machine’, the front-line essential workers, the people disproportionately affected because they all work in industries that are deemed indispensable in this pandemic. Many of these workers experience a lack of choice, as they have limited income and likely live in heavily shared spaces, setting them up as the prime targets of COVID-19.
In a world that is both visually diverse and deeply interconnected, companies and institutions with greater levels of diversity can help to narrow the inequality gap not only by achieving better performance by drawing on a wider gamut of experiences that inform decision-making, fostering overall innovation as a company, but also improve individual employee satisfaction. Simply put, diversity nurtures positive attitudes and behaviors in the workplace. Workplace diversity increases job and life satisfaction for women and members of minority groups, provided the workforce is diverse enough. For minority workers, for example, the boost in satisfaction begins when representation exceeds 15 percent of the workforce. When diversity recruitment is merely a token effort, the psychological outcomes are poorer(1). It is hardly surprising that workers from ethnic minorities report higher job and life satisfaction in more diverse workplaces. The presence of sufficient numbers of minority group members (or women in traditionally male-dominated environments) increases individuals’ confidence and self-esteem, while breaking down the prejudices that lead to exclusion in the first place. Similarly, research has shown that employees who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, or gender nonbinary (LGBTQ+) in a diverse workplace feel more secure and positive about their employers and jobs than those in a less diverse environment(2). With most office workers currently working from home, employees may feel even more isolated from their peers. It is clear that a supportive culture among colleagues and supervisors is more important than the presence of a non-discrimination policy, even though such policies are legally necessary(3).
This current health crisis is joined by a social crisis, one brought into sharp focus as examples of brutal racial injustice sparked a fervent, visceral outcry that has intensified during 2020. Even the UN has noted “Leave No One Behind” as the rallying motto of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Reducing inequality within and among countries is Goal 10 of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – with good reason. This is, without a doubt, an extension of discontent with social inequality in a rapidly changing world. We are confronting the harsh realities of a truly unequal global landscape. Around the world, we have witnessed mass protests, fueled by a combination of economic challenges, growing inequalities, and job insecurity. In some regions, income disparities and a lack of opportunities are creating a vicious cycle of inequality, frustration, and discontent across generations. It is time for people to exist on more equal ground.
While the pandemic is confronting organizations around the world with an unnerving degree of disruption, it has also brought to the forefront systemic challenges of inequality. Today, as I write this journal, it is November 7, 2020, and I am proud of this special moment we are witnessing in history, with President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris laying out an employment and economic recovery agenda that is built on their vision for a stronger, resilient, and more inclusive economy.
In the present environment, many would agree that we are experiencing multiple overlapping crises and there is a very real risk that diversity and the ‘global’ (i.e. full participant) inclusion of workers may now recede as a strategic priority for organizations while other pressing matters, such as remaining viable and profitable in the midst of this pandemic(4), will rise to the forefront. Companies will undoubtedly focus on their greatest basic needs, such as urgent measures to adapt to new ways of working, the consolidation of workforce capacity, the maintenance of productivity and a sense of connection, and the physical and mental health of their employees.
Yet, I would argue that companies unintentionally pulling back on their positive progress and intent of inclusion and diversity may now be positioning themselves at a disadvantage due to potential backlash from customers and workers in the face of growing pressures of the present crises. As a result, they will fail to grow, innovate, and improve the disparity gap on inequality and will only harm their own performance(4). The qualities that characterize diverse and inclusive companies—notably innovation and resilience—will be much-needed as companies recover from COVID-19(5). It can only help companies to unlock the power of inclusion and diversity to enable business performance and organizational health, thereby contributing to the wider effort to revive economies, repair and reform injustices, and safeguard social cohesion. Although there is probably an infinite number of permutations to organize a formal change process to improve diversity and inclusion to improve inequality, there are two important components to reframe the mindset for leaders, policymakers, and decision-makers, so we can ensure that inclusion and diversity based on full participation remains a core part of their agendas at the present moment, and beyond:
1. Diversity in Thinking
2. Without Inclusion, Diversity is Worthless
Diversity in Thinking
If we want the most innovative ideas, then we have to remain bold and deliberate to have the most diverse way of seeing things. This means looking beyond only demographic (i.e. gender and ethnicity) equality to the ultimate outcome – diversity of thinking. Demographic characteristics, such as gender and race, are still important areas of focus, and we need to ensure organizations create workplaces that are free from discrimination, enabling everyone to reach their full potential. Research shows that diversity of thinking enhances creativity and innovation by close to 20 percent. It also allows companies to project, program, and mitigate business risks, reducing these by up to 30 percent, smoothing the implementation of decisions by creating buy-in and trust(6).
So how can leaders make this insight practical to help narrow the gap for inequality and not neglect demographic diversity?
Research reveals that high-performing teams are both cognitively and demographically diverse. By cognitive diversity, we are referring to educational and functional diversity, as well as diversity in the mental frameworks that people use to solve problems. A complex problem typically requires input from six different mental frameworks or “approaches”: evidence, options, outcomes, people, process, and risk. In reality, no one is equally good at all six; hence the need for complimentary team members(7). Demographic diversity, for its part, helps teams tap into knowledge and networks specific to a particular demographic group. More broadly, it can help elicit cognitive diversity through its indirect effect on personal behaviors and group dynamics. For example, racial diversity stimulates curiosity, and gender balance facilitates conversational turn-taking.
Diversity of thinking is powerful for two reasons: first, it helps create a stronger and broader narrative about the case for diversity, one in which everyone feels relevant and part of a shared goal; second, it more accurately reflects people’s intersectional complexity instead of focusing on only one specific aspect of social or demographic identity. This focus on cognitive diversity recognizes that demographic equality is not the only useful, visible indicator of progress.
Without Inclusion, Diversity is Worthless
Research has identified a very basic formula: Diversity + Inclusion = Better Business Outcomes. It is often difficult to position diversity and inclusion as separate concepts with equal importance. Both are interrelated, as being diverse does not mean everyone is included in everything, because inclusion is the glue that provides an opportunity for individuals to feel a sense of belonging. The definition of inclusion is often left to personal interpretation and many organizations seem unclear about what it means. Without a shared understanding, people are prone to miscommunications, progress cannot be reliably evaluated, leaders cannot be held accountable, and organizations default to simply counting diversity numbers. What does inclusion really mean? The research reveals that a holistic definition is comprised of four related, yet discrete elements(8).
First, people feel included when they are treated equitably and with respect. Participation without favoritism is the starting point of inclusion and this requires nondiscrimination and basic courtesy. The next element relates to feeling valued and belonging. Inclusion is experienced when people believe that their unique and authentic self is valued by others, while at the same time, having a sense of connectedness to a group. Most importantly, inclusion is expressed as feeling safe to speak up without fear of embarrassment or retaliation, and when people feel empowered to grow and do one’s best work. Clearly, these elements are critical for diversity of thinking to emerge.
Today, Kamala Harris, as the first Black-South Asian Vice President in history, provides renewed hope for diversity and inclusion both inside and outside politics. It is no small feat to have a woman of color as a role model in such an important and visible position. However, visibility alone is not enough, as Vice President-elect Harris deserves to be more than a poster child for how far we think we have come. In 2018, she introduced the Diverse Leadership Act, legislation to ensure that at least one minority and one female candidate are interviewed for each vacancy for the presidency of the Federal Reserve. This is only the tip of the iceberg with Madame Vice-President Harris, as we expect Diversity and Inclusion to be on equal footing under her leadership. After all, as a first-generation immigrant, lawyer, District Attorney, Attorney General, United States Senator, and now Vice President of the United States, she has managed to break through many glass ceilings to get to where she is today. She brings every possible qualification to the table and adds a perspective that others cannot.
In reference to positive business outcomes, diversity is critical to ensuring all voices are represented in organizations, policymaking, decisions, and government. Inclusion is critically important to ensuring all voices are heard. Corporate policies are shaped by state and national education, health care, and labor market policies. Differences in these policies between regions may affect the distribution of human capital, skills, and wages, and thereby the distribution of market income. For example, the same position can pay very differently depending on the location of an employee, and this disparity also affects health or unemployment benefits. The UN published the “World Social Report 2020: Inequality in a Rapidly Changing World” that provides a detailed look at global economic, social, and environmental forces affecting the evolution of inequality within countries. It gives detailed insight, where inconsistencies in disposable income depend on the distribution of market income and explains the redistributive impact of social transfers and taxes.
If we improve our understanding of inclusion, then we can ensure policy change can happen in a cohesive way, which will lead to the desired outcomes where decision-making will help to serve inequality. There may be an overemphasis on diversity, and an underemphasis on inclusion, and without appropriately crafted tangible goals to improve inequality, any ambitions are merely fleeting ideas. The tone needs to be set from the top where leaders can define measurable goals around 1) commitment to inclusion; 2) increasing experiences of fairness, respect, value, and belonging; 3) shared inspirational moments; and 4) how the former translates to measurable team performance.
To borrow from Charles Dickens, this is the best of times and the worst of times to be advocating for diversity and inclusion. On the one hand, there is a groundswell of global energy directed toward the creation of all workplaces and organizations to be more inclusive: 38 percent of leaders now report that CEO is the primary sponsor of the diversity and inclusion agenda(10), and the formation of global initiatives (i.e. UN Sustainable Goals) speaks to the importance of these issues for the broader business community. On the other hand, some communities have become stalled in divisive debates about equality (for instance, around issues related to adequate healthcare access for some during the present COVID-19 pandemic). Workplaces have emerged as a core venue in which these different pressures have manifested and become much discussed. Caught in the middle, workplace leaders also have faced increasing challenges. So far, some have experienced devastating losses of revenue, dislocations to operations and supply chains, and challenges to liquidity and solvency. Others are coping with enormous unexpected spikes in demand. Leaders, management teams, and decision-makers around the world need a great deal of resolve and resilience as they seek to navigate an economically and socially viable path toward the “next normal,” and may feel ill-equipped to navigate or focus on diversity and inclusion as the forefront of competing challenges. All that being said, this is the perfect time to lean in. In the current era, mostly everyone will agree to the business case, but feeling time-poor and uncertain, leaders might question what to say (and what not to say) as well as what to do (and what not to do). However, at this point in time, this paralysis is simply not good enough. What distinguishes highly inclusive leaders from their counterparts is the commitment to diversity and inclusion because it aligns with their personal values. They have courage because they invite contributions by others. They are attentive to other cultures and adapt as required.
To address the two areas with a leadership mindset, we need to take some powerful actions to: 1) recognize that continued progress will require a shift in thinking and in some cases an entire cultural reset; and 2) create shared purpose and meaning by broadening the narrative to diversity of thinking and inclusion. It is time for leaders to step up and own that change. Embracing these actions will help deliver the outcomes that exemplars have experienced. It is time for leaders to reaffirm their commitment to inclusion and diversity and to reap its benefits not only because it is likely to give them a better chance at recovery, but also because it is the most humane and necessary thing to do. It will deliver the promised revolution.
As we saw during World War II, when many married women with children joined the labor force for the first time, big crises can bring about big change. At this watershed moment, there is an opportunity to forge a new commitment to diversity, equality, and fairness that will ensure more prosperity for all.
Artwork by: Elissa Pothier
(1) Enchautegui-de-Jesús, N et al., “Well-being in the context of workplace diversity”, Journal of Community Psychology, 2006, Vol. 34, Number 2, pp. 211–23.
(2) Waldo C. R., Waldo, “Working in a majority context”, Journal of Counseling Psychology, 2006, volume 46, pp. 218–32. The study focused on lesbian, gay, and bisexual workers as they found insufficient data on transgendered employees.
(3) Huffman, Ann H. et al, “Supporting a diverse workforce: What type of support is most meaningful for lesbian and gay employees?”, Human Resource Management, 2008, volume 47, issue 2, pp. 237–53.
(4) Your Brain at Work, “Want to thrive through crisis? Focus on diversity & inclusion,” blog entry by Paulette Gerkovich, April 23, 2020, neuroleadership.com.
(5) Hunt, V., Layton, D., & Prince, S. (2015, January). Why diversity matters. Retrieved November 9, 2020, from https://www.mckinsey.com/~/media/McKinsey/Business%20Functions/Organization/Our%20Insights/Why%20diversity%20matters/Why%20diversity%20matters.pdf.
(6) Hewlett, S., Marshall, M., Sherbin, L. (2013, December), How diversity can drive innovation. Harvard Business Review, Retrieved November 9, 2020 from, hbr.org.
(7) Bourke, J., & Dillon, B. (2018, January). The Diversity and Inclusion Revolution: Eight Powerful Truths. Retrieved from https://www2.deloitte.com/content/dam/insights/us/articles/4209_Diversity-and-inclusion-revolution/DI_Diversity-and-inclusion-revolution.pdf.
(8) Ibid. pg.86.
(9) Ibid. pg.85. (10) Dickens, Charles, A Tale of Two Cities (Chapman & Hall, 1859).
(10) Bourke, J., & Van Berkel, A. (2017, February 27). Diversity and inclusion: The reality gap. Pg. 107. Retrieved November 20, 2020, from https://www2.deloitte.com/us/en/insights/focus/human-capital-trends/2017/diversity-and-inclusion-at-the-workplace.html