There are few absolutes when itcomes to diversity and inclusion. Many of the most interesting projects I have worked on involve digging deep and going down the proverbial rabbit hole. Instead of having clear cut right and wrong answers (which one usually sees at a theoretical level), D&I implementation reveals a certain complexity that underlies the practice.
Most D&I professionals know this, and what keeps them up at night is thinking about how best to navigate these complexities while building buy-in. Organizations can have complicated structures, competing priorities, and assumptions of shared understandings and objectives. Within these environments, their job is often to convince people to make themselves a little less comfortable, so that others can feel more comfortable in a shared drive toward inclusion.
It’s clear that D&I is more than just “saris, samosa, and steel bands”.
To acknowledge the great work of D&I professionals (and provide a peek into their world, for others who are less familiar) this blog will tackle three big myths we often face around the work.
Myth 0.1 Diversity is what you see
The Ontario Human Rights Commission offers a great definition of the dimensions of diversity: "The unique personal characteristics that distinguish us as individuals and groups. These include but are not limited to: age, sex, gender, race, ethnicity, physical and intellectual ability, class, creed, religion, sexual orientation, educational background and expertise." While many tend to think of diversity with respect to the examples provided, which are often represented by visual markers of difference (even education, for example, is denoted by credentials) diversity also encompasses the aspects of our identities that are not always easy to define and identify. In fact, in a 2018 Harvard Business Review article, Anca and Aragón described three types of diversity: demographic, which is what the OHRC covers; experiential, which includes one’s affinities and interests; and cognitive, which speaks to a person’s perspectives and approaches to decision-making.
Though organizational D&I is typically oriented around demographics -- a scan of your organization’s policies will likely demonstrate this, for example -- many of the intangible pieces of the work, and in particular the elements that affect implementation, involve managing experiential and cognitive diversity.
Myth 0.2 Inclusion happens through neutralization
One example that I’m sure most Canadians and Canadian residents will understand is the “holiday party”. For those unfamiliar, the typical office debate around whether or not, and/or how to celebrate major religious or cultural holidays can be simplified as follows. One side feels that to be inclusive, all reference to religion must be muted. This aligns with ideas of secularism and acknowledges that not all share the same belief systems. The other side, which leans towards conceptualisations of Canadian multiculturalism, believes inclusion can occur by making space for all, and in this respect it shouldn’t shy away from religious expression. Both appear to be all or nothing approaches.
Indeed, it’s fascinating debate, and one that could be confusing on a number of levels, particularly with respect to the expression of one's spiritual identity within the workplace. For many social services providers for instance, best practice guides workers to embrace discussions around faith with their clients, especially if the client perceives their beliefs to be a critical part of their identity and their social support network. Yet, in some of the social service organizations I've worked with, expressions of the workers' faith are discouraged elsewhere in the organization. And others I've worked with don't feel comfortable having their workers speak with clients about their beliefs at all because it might infringe on the rights of the worker. With a steadily increasing number of Canadians self-defining as having no religion (atheist, agnostic or humanist), it's a situation that's clearly not so simple.
For some employees, neutralization means that they can’t bring their whole selves to work, and for others, exposure to faith-based practices and symbolism is antithetical to safety. It’s a balancing act between the law, policies and protocols, and organizational values, and oftentimes the best answer is found in a unique formula discovered through collective decision-making.
Though the examples here appear extreme, I see them often within my practice. In order to chip away at these topics, organizations need to have courageous conversations about who they are, where they stand, and what diverse stakeholders can expect from them. The job of the D&I professional is to ask these tough questions, help facilitate their discussion, and lead implementation once decisions are made. Surely not as easy as putting on a holiday party.
Myth 0.3 Diversity and Inclusion happens "over there"
It’s a pragmatic decision to set up a D&I department to guide this work, but as I’ve said elsewhere, there is a risk of siloing D&I efforts as a result. Instead of impacting broader operational areas such as corporate citizenship, partnership, and procurement for instance, it is often relegated to either human resources or client experience based on its positioning within the organizational structure.
More traditional hierarchical organizational structures are constrained by bureaucracies and portfolios. Employees tend to “stay in their lanes” to avoid upsetting the structure (or their colleagues). As well, successful portfolio--and resource--management is key to advancement, so there is little incentive to share ownership through collaboration and co-creation. What results is a situation where D&I professionals either focus on achieving specific D&I targets, or they receive “problems” to be “solved” from colleagues in other departments. Meanwhile, they could instead be working proactively to build an inclusive lens, that permeates organizational practices and decision-making with greater intentionality. Unless they can advocate for their work internally, D&I professionals eventually become the sole owners of the work and end up being singly responsible for D&I’s roll-out and evaluation, it's success or failure. Not only is this unsustainable and stressful, but it also requires D&I teams to have a deep understanding of organizational operations and be highly influential!
Even in more flat or cross-functional structures, it can be an uphill battle to create space for D&I best practices. In order for D&I to travel and become embedded, it requires champions vertically and horizontally across an organization to help usher it along and encourage collaboration. D&I cannot operate in a vacuum or a silo if it is to be effective and long-lasting.
Now this is just a snapshot of the myths one might hear about D&I work, and the realities D&I professionals face. There are many more myths associated with the work, and I’ll unpack these in future blogs. If there are myths that you often hear about the work, please connect – I’d love to hear your thoughts!