Why the death of diversity could be a good thing

Jesse Rosenberg


written on March 6, 2017

It’s well known that having a diverse and inclusive workforce can yield significant benefits. So why are companies still struggling with diversity?

Establishing an inclusive culture is the baseline, according to Paul Wolfe, SVP of Human Resources at Indeed, in order to develop a diverse workplace.

“In order to source a variety of  candidates from different backgrounds and with different world views, it’s important to build a more inclusive environment, so that you can attract and retain a diverse workforce,” said Wolfe.

“We recently conducted a study of 1002 people currently employed in the technology industry, and 77 per cent of respondents say it is very or quite important to have a diverse company, yet nearly a quarter (24 per cent) felt that they had been personally discriminated against.”

(Want to know more about the state of diversity in Australia? Read our review of AHRI’s inclusion and diversity survey).

Trouble in paradise

The technology sector has come under scrutiny because it is characterised as being populated by young, mainly white males, with little sign of progress. Google and Amazon, the US’s biggest tech giants, have been spectacular failures when it comes to increasing the diversity of their employees.

Despite investing $2.65 million into a diversity program, Google has failed to show any significant change in the composition of its workforce.

The company’s first diversity report revealed that 61% of their staff were white, and only 30% of their workforce were female, which was only a 1% growth over the last two years. Likewise, the number of African American employees hasn’t increased at all, sitting at a dismal 2%. Amazon wasn’t much better, with only 18 out of its 120 senior managers being women.

The problem with diversity

Diversity is a celebration of  all the great things that make us all different. The flipside of that in a workplace setting is that inclusion and diversity policies can be seen as an opportunity to treat people differently and many employees don’t want to be treated differently to their coworkers, they want to be treated equally.

Diversity programs are thus sometimes viewed as fostering division and actually fail to reach those who can most benefit from their message.

Speaking about diversity programs, Erica Joy Baker, an African American former engineer at Google says: “The only people who show up are the people who are already thinking about and working on those biases, and the people who really need it aren’t going.”

(Case study: read our story about how The Star refocused their recruitment and training programs to achieve management diversity)

So what’s the solution?

According to Belinda Parmar, Founder and CEO of The Empathy Business, we need to avoid focusing on differences, and instead focus on improving outcomes for everyone.

“The answer is to avoid binaries, whether racial, ethnic or gender-based, as they only go to reinforce the sense of self vs other,” she said.

Parmer says that the programmes that were most effective at improving outcomes for women also improved conditions for men.

“Instead of making a corporation more female-friendly we helped it become more human-friendly. These were changes that were neither targeted nor driven explicitly by gender or racial concerns.”

A focus on fostering workplaces that see beyond the differences and create a positive space for all people might just be the secret to a creating truly diverse workplace.

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5 thoughts on “Why the death of diversity could be a good thing

  1. Focussing on something ‘higher’ than differences is smart. That’ll help us move from ‘us vs. them’ to ‘we’ (in the same way an alien invasion of Earth would suddenly melt away entrenched nation-to-nation conflicts because we’d have to unite to survive).

    But you can’t overlook language either. How we describe people and roles is the lens that colours our worldview.

    Credosity’s diversity and inclusion detector (for Word and Outlook) is a good start. AHRI members get three months free.

  2. Conclusion agreed, Jesse. One of the key premises of a successful diversity and inclusion strategy is creating a positive space for all. When considering gender, for example, there are areas of work to address imbalances for women. At the same time an effective D&I strategy will look to provide equality for men. Parental leave and flexible work spring immediately to mind.

    The title of this article is a little confusing – “Why the death of diversity could be a good thing”. An effective D&I strategy includes analysing where unnecessary imbalances are occurring within an organisation and addressing them in a way which brings diversity. This is preceded by forming a culture of inclusion through education and leading by example. There is no quick fix, but a well-planned and well-executed strategy can achieve change that makes good business sense and while also being also ‘the right thing to do.’

  3. The ‘death of diversity a good thing?!’ In the workplace of the present, diversity is a reality. If diversity is defined as ‘the other’ in contrast to a white, male majority, then what on earth does the ‘death of diversity’ imply?

    It is critical we separate the concepts of ‘diversity’ and ‘diversity management and practice’. The death of old school, binary, label-focused diversity management and practice is something I’d be delighted to see. The ‘death of diversity’ is something else altogether, and quite frankly, a frightening concept. In times of populist politics, increasing nationalism and race-based hate, we need to be careful of our language and what we’re promoting.

    This article focuses strongly on the US, and the failure of workplace diversity initiatives and policies there. It’s very important to recognise, that in the US workplace, diversity is often defined as referring to ‘minorities’. Minorities are commonly defined as ‘African-American’ or ‘Latino/a’. We don’t use such racial language in diversity practice in Australia. This binary labelling and teaching about ‘the other’, without recognising the complex layers of identity we all have, is problematic, and can reinforce bias. This has often been the dominant approach in the US.

    Good diversity practice focuses on inclusion for ALL with solid practices for mitigating the biases we all hold. It ensures capability and talent is recognised and promoted regardless of colour, shape, size, culture, privilege or anything else. It also actively leverages cognitive diversity, and the breadth of life experience, perspective and skills every person brings for productivity and performance.

    So, please, let’s focus our skills and abilities in the AHRI community on ensuring the language we use is inclusive, progresses the conversation about HOW we share and enable best practice in relation to inclusion and diversity. Let’s do our best to contribute to ensuring our diverse 21st century workplaces are places where we all belong and contribute our best.

  4. I have been saying for many years that Diversity programs do not work.

    Their purpose may be to create a more “inclusive” workforce, however by their very nature, they are creating labels, barriers and division.

    Setting targets of y% of the workforce to be female/black/minority in x years actually only serves to create reverse discrimination and to create greater friction between these groups within the workforce.

    Say you have 20 people apply for a role and say 1 is minority female and you have a policy in place to increase minority females – do you hire the minority female even if there are stronger candidates who are not minority candidates?

    Now say they were in actual fact the best candidate, do your other candidates now assume that the only reason they missed out is because they were not a minority female? Further, how do your existing staff interpret your hiring decision? Will they look at the candidate and immediately think, “they only got the job because they’re a minority female” which will then negatively impact their perception of the candidate, who will then, by default, be constantly living under the pressure of that scrutiny.

    I’ve been in that position of constantly having to prove myself capable to my mostly male colleagues, and constantly being looked down upon because the perception was that I only got the role because I was a female, and I can tell you personally that it’s not a fun place to be. In fact it’s a very mentally and emotionally draining place to be because you’re always in that position of if you make any single teensy tiny error it’s immediate proof to others that obviously she only go the role because she’s female.

    Yes, we definitely need to overcome gender/race discrimination in hiring, yes we need to ensure that females and minority’s are not being overlooked in hiring, BUT we can’t do this at the expense of hiring to best candidate for the role.

    We have to ensure that any policy is not just a feel good document created by executives who may think they’re doing the right thing, or may only be doing it as a face saving exercise, but either way are purely setting arbitrary quotas and timelines that only server to create further divide, rather than greater unity.

    Inclusivity by definition means we need to consider all, including young white skinned males, and ensure that all are treated fairly and equitably both at hiring, and during their employment, irrespective of race/gender and I believe that this is where these policies are failing – inclusivity of “all”.

  5. In large part the diversity conversation is a perversion of the EEO and Anti-discrimination agenda, initiated through a miss-application of the North American diversity quotas, where the government sought to force businesses to address their inherent discriminatory practices.

    The upside of the US agenda was a realisation that by making good use of the diversity in their workforces, they could achieve better results on some level. The rest of the world then suddenly leaped at the chance to improve their businesses through largely blind emulation. But we all know that doesn’t work. So it is not diversity that has failed but those who jumped on it as an end it itself without understanding the purpose and practice required for success.

    Contrary to the author, I do support a diversity agenda, one that diagnoses the demographics of the business, seeks opportunities and gaps, and looks for “novel” or innovative talent that can exploit those opportunities. What typically gets left out is an understanding of what it takes to leverage diversity – it’s inclusion. And inclusion is hard, because it is equity rather than equality. And contrary to the author, people expect equity not equality in how they are treated.

    So let’s look to maximising the diversity we have, looking for talent and capabilities we don’t poses – that will advance our business – provide all staff with an environment where they can contribute and success will follow.

    However you address it, a diversity agenda must be engaged in because it is good for business and the staff, and that consciously engaging rather than blindly copying is the foundation. Diversity is not at fault nor is homogeneity either – those ignorantly plying diversity as the end rather than the means are the problem.

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