by, Nicole Beckerman — From the water cooler to keynote speeches, diversity and inclusion are topics looming large in the tech industry. Today one finds that the two terms have been conflated often enough that they seem interchangeable. But they are not. Diversity and Inclusion have distinct differences which influence individual experiences as well as organizational success.
A clear understanding of diversity and inclusion helps us to communicate effectively and consistently share a common perspective.
Diversity as a Requirement
The narrative has changed from diversity being an unusual virtue to a respected standard. A “diverse” company means one staffed by people of different races, ethnicities, genders, ages, religions, physical abilities, and sexual orientations. In 2018, a diverse workplace environment is widely expected.
Workplaces pride themselves and tout diversity as a moniker. The job section of major corporate websites often highlights diversity efforts to attract top candidates, while at the same time organizations make a big PR fuss about their diversity hiring goals and employee engagement activities.
These diversity efforts have yielded meaningful results. Collectively we’ve worked to reduce barriers to entry for marginalized groups and established formal legal protections. Research has also come out demonstrating that highly diverse firms are 45% more likely to have growth in market share over the previous year, and 70% more likely to capture a new market.
In a 2018 study, Atlassian commissioned, over 80% of tech professionals said diversity and inclusion are important to them. In response, Companies are creating diversity measures designed to get a wider variety of people in the door and cultivate a more diverse hiring pipeline. Examples include Microsoft tying bonuses to diversity hiring and Pandora regularly releasing their diversity metrics while forming relationships with historically diverse colleges. Clorox has even stated via its corporate blog:
“If you cannot answer the diversity question clearly and favorably when it is asked in the recruiting process, [candidates] are going to choose to work elsewhere.”
Diversity efforts and research are vital to maintain. They lead to real outcomes and helpful information, yet they are not a complete solution to the problems disadvantaged groups endure on a daily basis. That is where diversity and inclusion merge.
Evolving to be Inclusive
Diversity at the hiring stage and supporting pipeline programs which get minorities into the ranks are critical. However, this approach is limiting when you look at the overall employee experience over the course of employment. How people from disadvantaged groups are treated day-to-day in an organization matters significantly more because it affects their ongoing engagement and performance. This is where inclusion steps in.
A Deloitte study found that 61% of employees are “covering” on some personal dimension (appearance, affiliation, advocacy, association) to assimilate in their organization.
‘Everyone covers. To cover is to tone down a disfavored identity to fit into the mainstream. In our diverse society, all of us are outside the mainstream in some way […] every reader of this book has covered, whether consciously or not, and sometimes at a significant personal cost.’ Wikipedia
These people are denying a part of their identity to function within their workplace. This is a serious problem for companies who want to keep their turnover at a minimum, reap the benefits of a highly engaged workforce, understand a diverse customer base, and be truly innovative.
Inclusion means embracing differences so that people don’t have to downplay their individuality or work harder to receive equal recognition and rewards. It means people of all backgrounds are not just sitting at the table, but are also being listened to, taken seriously, and respected for their individual contributions.
A large part of inclusion is undoing bias. Unconscious bias keeps people on a narrow track, with leaders hiring and promoting those who are similar to them and employees unable to collaborate effectively. Minority groups might find themselves excluded from important conversations, passed over for mentoring, and left unrewarded for their hard work. When unconscious bias pervades an organization, a large percentage of employees will not perform to their full potential, while the organization will become stagnant and lag behind competitors—a potentially fatal problem.
A common mistake companies make is to look at positive diversity numbers and think everything is going well, but this assumes that inclusion naturally follows diversity. This is not necessarily the case. One can’t simply throw a bunch of minority hires at the problem and hope for the best. An organization can easily have high numbers of diverse people of different backgrounds all feeling unseen, unheard, and unwelcome due to facets of their identity.
What advantage is there in an inclusive environment? We’re just starting to scratch the surface to understand what potential can be unlocked, but recent research sheds some light on the benefits inclusive organizations enjoy:
- Employees who say they can bring their whole self to work are 42% less likely to leave their job within a year,
- 69% of women who made the decision to off-ramp would have stayed on, continuing to contribute, if they’d had flexible work options.
- Ethnically and racially diverse companies who emphasize inclusivity are also 33% more likely to outperform their peers.
Savvy companies are coming to realize that diversity efforts without inclusion are hollow measures. Whereas diversity measures are a fight against a highly visible bias, inclusion works against a subtler, yet constant bias. Diversity alone simply can’t unlock all the potential opportunities for us to collaborate as a society, so it must be coupled with efforts to be inclusive.
Taking The First Step
Inclusion is quite simply harder, more expensive, and more demanding than diversity. It is a mindset and culture within an organization which requires long-term, sustained effort around sensitive topics. Even a positive outcome might be abstract since diversity efforts can be considered successful with a few headcount metrics, while successful inclusion is much more about detailed experiences and subjective information.
Yet the effort is worth it when employees get to feel engaged with their job, seen as complete human beings and become invested in the organization’s success on a new level.
The first step towards fostering inclusion is to have real, honest conversations with disadvantaged group members and understand how they feel at work. Are they free to express their views and opinions? Are they compromising their authenticity at work to get ahead? If they feel stuck in their career path, why do they think that is? Do they feel obligated to spend extra time sponsoring employees of their gender/race or do they perhaps have fears about the repercussions of doing so?
Gathering this information may be uncomfortable, but it is especially necessary for dominant group members to take in the experience of the minority group members without making excuses or getting defensive. Part of inclusivity is also acknowledging that multiple legitimate experiences of the workplace exist.
We need conversations like this to move forward. For example, when men and women were asked about the cause of tech’s diversity problem in a 2016 survey, a whopping 49% of men said that not enough women and minorities were entering the industry. Conversely, women were more likely to cite lack of unconscious bias training and role models/mentors. This disparity in response leaves one to think that men in tech could learn information that might surprise them by talking to their female colleagues.
Ironically, according to the study, the men surveyed really do care about diversity and inclusion. This begs one to surmise that a large majority of the men were not truly engaged in an inclusive environment since their female counterparts exist. The solution is not simple as engagement mechanics need not only be adopted but practiced. Without truly listening to disadvantaged or minority groups the men’s responses might stay the same.
It can be scary for the dominant group to acknowledge and delve into the reality of a marginalized group. It’s comfortable and easy to rely on existing patterns of thinking that don’t challenge us. Yet we can never collaborate with one another to our full potential if we don’t harness our differences. They are truly powerful and allow us to face any number of complicated challenges together, with creativity and innovation.
Act Now. Start the conversation, and continue the conversation. Inclusion starts with being inclusive.
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