Diversity is a complicated word. It always has been. But lately, this buzzword has taken on a whole new luster.
By turns shiny and positive, and then in practically the same breath, tarnished and chipped, diversity is an idea, a construct, that I would venture to say few people actually want to talk about. Let me explain.
Most of us want inclusion. We want women and other traditionally identified minorities to have the same opportunities white men have enjoyed since, well, forever. We want the workplace to be equitable, merit-based, fair, safe from harassment, etc.
Most of us, well, some of us, are willing to make changes in order to achieve that state. Some organizations are busily changing policies and practices and gathering data with which to make the structural changes to bring equity into their organizations various talent management functions.
But it’s hard, hard work. It’s time consuming, uphill battling, exhausting work. And those who take up the task often have to do so in opposition, and in addition to another full-time job.
Few people really want to talk about it. I know I don’t. I find it irritating, so I can only imagine how white men feel. And the people who do want to talk about it, can do so at length. They share fabulous ideas amongst themselves at conferences, or spout the odd worthy tidbit in a weekly blog. But we know a good chunk of our time is wasted.
How can it not be when we’re repeating the same things over and over, trying to appear reasonable and non-threatening when we really wanna say, “This is so obvious. Why not just admit you don’t want things to change because the current state of things works well for you?”
Talking about diversity is presenting endless facts, testimonials and evidence of positive business impact only to have this often empirically sound data – related to geographic change, buying power, customer preference, cultural difference and more – knocked off kilter by “motivated reasoning,” a lovely phrase I encountered recently in a mock letter to former Google engineer James Damore from Google co-founder Larry Page. It means you seek out only the information that supports something you already believe.
Things like motivated reasoning are the reason we can’t get anywhere. It doesn’t matter what data you have or how eloquent your arguments in favor of diversity and inclusion in the workplace. If someone is not motivated to listen, if they don’t want what you’re offering, well. You are wasting your time.
Don’t get me wrong, I believe diversity is a good thing. It’s necessary. It’s not a future state. It’s now, here, not there. It’s affecting almost all of us in one way or another, and it’s worth fighting for, however tired and banged up its warriors may be. But it’s not easy. Not even when the people at the table believe in it.
I habitually search #diversity on Twitter just to see what’s out there. News bits I may have missed, good and bad, new programs and initiatives launched by big, global companies that have the will and the resources to initiate change. But for every positive tale, every celebration of difference, I see tweets bastardizing the term diversity. Turning it into something not just divisive, but disgusting, reprehensible. If I didn’t know better I’d find that baffling.
But I get it. There’s no respect for it. No desire for change, and change is the motivating factor here. The linchpin, as it were.
Still, I believe it’s worth fighting for. I believe it’s the right thing to do for so many people in so many companies and in so many situations.
But we need something new, something different, a fresh strategy to combat the diversity fatigue that has become a malaise on so many of our minds, hearts and spirits when it comes to diversity work. Perhaps we need a new way to talk about diversity.
I ran into an interesting article on LinkedIn discussing that very thing – how to talk about diversity. The author, Aerial M. Ellis, offered three ways to move beyond diversity as buzzword, and reframe the conversation as a competency one can acquire and use to some benefit. Her first item?
Understand that diversity does not mean non-white. I think this one is critical. So much of the diversity-related crap I see in the media suggests the concept is a zero sum game: If minorities win, white males lose, period, and that’s not the whole story.
Yes, in a workplace context, some white men will lose positions – if they’re not qualified to hold them in the first place. If their skills are not strong enough to sway the day once the favors and systems that grandfathered them into certain places are removed, they may be replaced by a woman or a person of color.
That’s the game. There is competition, and leveling the playing field will increase it. Further, natural selection favors the strong, the bold, the competent, not those who may have slid into a choice spot based on their school or family connections.
The other piece of the story is that white men often feel excluded when the topic du jour is diversity, and they most certainly should not be. A lot of that is the diversity advocate/practitioner’s fault. In many cases we don’t do enough to include everyone in these critical discussions and strategic deliberations.
If inclusion is the goal, excluding white men is ridiculous and wrong. We need white male advocates. They have the power to effect change quickly and decisively, to sustain it and position it in a way that is more palatable for their brethren.
Stop calling people ‘diverse’. Ellis’ next point says that “using “diversity” as a catchall reinforces wrong meaning. Specifically naming the groups we’re talking about — based on characteristics such as LGBTQ, age, race or nationality — sets a tone for belonging, and prevents diversity from erasing the distinctions that make it necessary in the first place.”
Here again, it comes down to the meaning behind the word. I don’t speak of the definition, but the nuances, the context, much of which is negative, unpalatable, painful or uncomfortable.
Prepare for the emerging majority. This last point is one I don’t think diversity pundits devote nearly enough time to. And Ellis hones right in on why immediately when she calls out the word “minority,” a long-held, common descriptor for people of color. She says:
“But with the United States poised to become a minority-majority country by the year 2040, the shift will reshape the language of our industry and perhaps create a stronger filter for senior leaders and decision-makers responsible for navigating organizational cultures.”
If we went strictly by the numbers, the word minority would not refer to people of color at all. It would be a designation for white people. But the term is not solely about numbers. Recall my reference to nuance. Minority is one of those juicy, loaded words that holds a ton of meaning, past and present. For me, the term often suggests less than. That, I think, is why it’s still so popular despite its inaccuracy and its subtle taint of insult.
So, no. Nobody really wants to talk about diversity. Unless you like eye rolling and big, faintly annoyed sighs. But we have to, and we may need some new ways to do that.