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March 10, 2021

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Real Workplace Diversity Requires New Mindsets, Not New Metrics

Fans of the long-running British sci-fi staple “Doctor Who” have witnessed their beloved protagonist undergo a lot of changes. Or have they? The series has often been lauded for its sincere portrayal of diverse characters as strong, capable human beings -- not stereotypes. The Doctor’s companions have spanned all categories of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation and culture. Yet since 1963, the Doctor has always emerged from his regeneration cycles as a white male. Until now. As the next season unfolds, we will see Jodie Whittaker take the helm of the TARDIS as the first female incarnation of the Doctor. Still, why so long a wait? Why did it take until 2017 for “Wonder Woman” to grace the big screen (and crush it at the box office)? What did the #OscarsSoWhite controversy of 2016 indicate? That society has a long road to travel before it embraces inclusion in a meaningful way -- and that we need to shift our mindset from reckoning diversity as a metric instead of a pillar supporting the foundations of a world that thrives.

It’s Time to Start Thinking Differently About Differences

In an editorial penned by Colin Baker, who portrayed the sixth Doctor, the actor made a wise observation. The patriarchal Doctor, he explained, reflected the zeitgeist of his decade. “But we have evolved, thankfully, and most of us see the absurdity of a world in which either gender should dominate the other or be regarded as second-class citizens,” Baker added.

The dozen or so personalities to emerge thus far from the chrysalis of regeneration have been as different as any you could pick at random on the Clapham omnibus on Gallifrey; except in one particular -- gender. They have been young and old, they have been Scottish, northern and received pronunciation, they have been grumpy, feckless, patrician, barmy, innocent, brash and potty -- but never female.

I have always found that problematical, not in the world we live in, but in the world the characters live in, particularly the Doctor’s world. The world we live in has a history of male domination, of stereotyping, of resistance to change, of playing it safe. Doctor Who has never been about that. The Doctor in all his incarnations has always been a passionate defender of justice, equality, fairness and resisted those who seek to dominate or destroy.

However, Baker still finds himself confronted by the lingering specter of discrimination, despite some progress in evolving attitudes. He admits being surprised that 20 percent or more of the people he meets at conventions oppose the idea of a female lead in the show. In fact, some have threatened to boycott the program. Unfortunately, this behavior validates that the cultural boundaries to inclusion remain firm. And that too many people fail to recognize the absurdity of inequality.

Similar People Produce Similar Problems

Last June, we published an article on diversity’s vital connection to business success. We questioned the need to continue making the case for diversity, because it’s already been made -- dozens of time over. Yet the charged rhetoric we continue to hear from politicians around the world indicates that the case must still be made.

At the heart of referendums such as Brexit, what emerges is ultimately a referendum on inclusion. Fears of immigration, gender parity and LGBTQ rights stoke the flames. They appeal to a sense of stereotyping and ambiguous generalizations. As June Sarpong opined in her powerful article for the Guardian, these movements reinforce that “multiculturalism itself is under siege.”

Yet diversity is necessary for the legitimacy of any representative democracy. Over the years we have seen low levels of voter participation and poor engagement among minorities and other overlooked groups. Women, black and minority ethnic communities, young people or those with disabilities – huge swaths of the electorate have felt uninspired to exercise their right to suffrage.

This is in part because those representing the population have not reflected us in terms of ethnicity, gender, disability, class and sexual orientation. This failure has narrowed our political perspectives; if politicians are from similar backgrounds, and have similar experiences and outlooks, they begin to look unfamiliar to many of those they represent. That in turn causes people to disengage from politics.

The same type of disenfranchisement plagues corporate cultures that reward homogeneity. Companies are struggling to innovate and maintain a competitive edge. They seek to pioneer the next big ideas, reach a broader customer base and attract talent with fresh perspectives. So here’s the question: how can an organization short on innovation make any strides by retaining the same kind of people who haven’t broken new ground? The reality, in any context, is that clamping down on diversity stifles innovation and progress. Similar people, similar solutions -- and problems. Simply put, it’s terrible for business and society.

Real Workplace Diversity Is Not a Metric, It’s a Mindset

Diversity, as a workforce concern, seems to be in danger of becoming a data point -- or even a euphemism. We must do better. That’s the long and short of it. And the solution may be simpler and more direct than we’ve imagined. Instead of measuring diversity, reporting on it and setting quantifiable targets to achieve some statistical threshold of acceptability, we need to speak up. Attaining a truly inclusive workforce begins with talking about diversity, championing differences and defending equality -- vocally and visibly. If history has taught us anything, it’s that troubles flourish when people keep quiet, consider themselves powerless or remain idle. And problems endure in that silence.

According to the World Economic Forum, the gender pay gap could take 170 years to close. In Hollywood, perhaps longer. The film industry has become notorious for discrepancies in pay parity, even though research suggests that movies with diverse casts perform better. It’s funny, then, that Hollywood expressed “shock and surprise” when “Wonder Woman” trounced competing films with an historic $103 million weekend debut. That sentiment speaks more to opinions about our culture than the quality of the movie. Of course, the producers now have a metric. And that’s how studio executives will view diversity -- by the numbers.

In some ways, in some business environments, in some corporate cultures, that’s where this tale ends. “Let’s make more movies about female superheroes,” studios will declare to their shareholders. They have a number. They have a target. That doesn’t portend, however, that these organizations will bring the same inclusiveness to their workforces. It doesn’t mean they’ll hire more women writers, directors, producers, staffers, engineers, editors and so forth. That mindset would likely prevail across any diversity category, not gender alone.

”Wonder Woman” is also just a fiction to many. She’s not real, opponents of equality will rationalize. She represents an unattainable ideal state, not a true measure of ability. And that’s a mistake. Gal Gadot, who depicts Wonder Woman on screen, embodies the attributes of her character. Sure, she has exotic beauty, intelligence and talent. She’s also a trained combat soldier in the Israeli Defense Forces. I think it’s safe to say that ass-kicking, in all its iterations, is something firmly entrenched in her wheelhouse. Yet, according to industry reports, her compensation paled in comparison to that of her male colleagues in the same genre.

Assigning numeric goals to diversity will not solve the crisis. The United Kingdom, which has come under fire for its widespread pay disparities, recently enforced regulations that require companies with more than 250 employees to publish pay and bonus gaps between male and female workers. However, even proponents of the legislation’s principles fear that the “metric could misrepresent their efforts to increase the diversity of their workforce.”

According to poll results conducted by Mercer, U.K. agencies believe the reporting requirement “is unlikely to provide an accurate view, and results could have a negative impact on firms which are genuinely being proactive in this area.”

The bigger challenge is actually thinking in terms of inclusion rather than figures and buzzwords. As Noah Berlatsky noted in the Los Angeles Times, “diversity” is devolving into a convenient, euphemistic term. While it may instill a positive and upbeat mood, it no longer captures the essence of inclusion.

“When critics from marginalized groups ask for more diversity,” Berlatsky wrote, “they are actually asking the media, employers, schools and society in general not to discriminate against them…. A request for more diversity isn’t really a plea to embrace stimulating heterogeneity. It’s a plea to embrace minimal decency.”

“Although diversity ostensibly covers everyone, in practice it’s used to convey the presence of non-white, non-male, non-hetero or non-cis groups,” he added. “The word therefore implies that what’s normal is white, male, hetero, cis. There are white guys, and there are diverse people, who are defined by their difference from the standard or norm.”

Herein lies the core of genuine diversity. Discrimination takes for granted the objective reality of differences from this “non-white, non-male, non-hetero or non-cis” norm. Racism, for example, insinuates that white and black people differ in some fundamental way. Sexism accomplishes the same with gender, where the perceived differences in the performance of men and women are discussed, not the differences between two women. Even religious discrimination infers that one belief system is “normal” and “correct,” while another is somehow detrimental or false. In each instance, bigotry makes a comparison against the accepted norm and anything else, which is inherently viewed as inferior in some way.

Diversity, in its purest sense, not only celebrates and accepts differences, it refutes the notion that “philosophically and biologically flimsy categories actually describe real differences.” This is precisely how we need to think about real workplace diversity and inclusion. Former Sen. Barry Goldwater (R-Ariz.) astutely seized the spirit of authentic diversity when questioned about gay military personnel coming out: “You don’t need to be straight to fight and die for your country. You just need to shoot straight.”

The Seeds of Diversity Need Light to Grow

On July 12, the New York Times posted a brilliant column by Lindy West about the conditions in which diversity withers. Its title, “Real Men Might Get Made Fun Of,” strikes at the heart of the problem. “If you care,” she asks, “how often do you say something? Maybe you’ll confront your close friends, but what about more powerful men, famous men, cool men, men who could further your career?”

And then West begs the ultimate question -- the one any leader who legitimately values or worries about diversity must consider: “Do you ever stick up for me?”

Our society has engineered robust consequences for squeaky wheels, a verdant pantheon from eye-rolls all the way up to physical violence. One of the subtlest and most pervasive is social ostracism -- coding empathy as the fun killer, consideration for others as an embarrassing weakness and dissenting voices as out-of-touch, bleeding-heart dweebs (at best). Coolness is a fierce disciplinarian.

A result is that, for the most part, the only people weathering those consequences are the ones who don’t have the luxury of staying quiet. Women, already impeded and imperiled by sexism, also have to carry the social stigma of being feminist buzzkills if they call attention to it. People of color not only have to deal with racism; they also have to deal with white people labeling them “angry” or “hostile” or “difficult” for objecting.

We have written exhaustively about the economic benefits of diversity, inclusion strategies, unbiased talent acquisition practices and even the role technology plays in creating an empathetic culture. The advice has been sound, informative and heartfelt. Yet, business leaders may never realize comprehensive inclusion by developing quotas or goals or numbers, and then trying to hit them. Metrics are crucial for intelligence and transparency. They are, however, cold starting points.

Here’s the thing we don’t mention enough. Before any workplace diversity initiatives commence, the first step should really be a long look in the mirror. Business leaders must ask, “Who are we, who do we want to be, and will we stick up for everyone?” Here are some simple ways to proceed from there.

  • Create a representative team of diversity champions, across all employment levels of the enterprise, to advise on fair and inclusive processes for retention, recognition, skills coaching, effective management techniques, bias prevention education, performance and compensation reviews, and more.
  • Engage every employee in diversity efforts. Instead of talking to them, talk with them. Never assume. Get their input and develop strategies based on those findings.
  • Make corporate leaders accountable for creating inclusion advocates across all classes, reinforcing diversity commitments, measuring progress, identifying challenges and sticking up for every team member equally.
  • Don’t allow diversity to become an independent agenda or subset of the workforce, relegated to groups or roles. Infuse diversity throughout the enterprise, in thought and deed. Foster a culture that ends the association of labels or subconscious identifiers or preconceived characteristics with age, gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, etc. You’re working with people -- people who are 99.9 percent identical in their genetic markup.

You’ll seldom get to inclusion by just measuring data against the organization’s demographic norm, whatever that happens to be. In fact, abandon the idea of that demographic norm. You achieve real workplace diversity by building a diverse culture, where the only norm is a shared value for success.

Image from copyright holders Getty; BBC; Metro.co.uk

Bret Bass
Bret Bass
Vice President of Special Operations
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