Diversity and inclusion initiatives have become mainstream in organizations, particularly in the face of ongoing scandals at companies like Uber and Fox News. This is important because having workplaces in which individuals can be authentic at work, regardless of who they are, is important for employee wellbeing. However, despite the presence of these initiatives companies still continue to have trouble attracting and retaining diverse talent. Why aren’t these initiatives working the way companies want them to?
Diversity and inclusion may not be focused on the right things. First, diversity is focused on having underrepresented groups recruited and retained within companies, particularly in leadership roles. However, diversity is one part of the puzzle –while having a diverse working population is a worthy goal, once those who are underrepresented are in the organization, the culture will matter a lot. Plus, diversity has taken on a lot of different meanings at work (e.g. diversity of thought, opinion, etc.) which may focus on general acceptance of others but may not address issues of bias that may exist against certain groups. This potentially “watered down” definition of diversity may mean little to those who feel they don’t fit in demographically at work.
This is where inclusion entered into the equation. Inclusion is meant to create a culture of acceptance for employees, which is complementary to diversity initiatives. The idea is that, if you are going to fill your organization with underrepresented employees, you should have a culture that supports those folks as well. However, many inclusion initiatives are focused on equality – that everyone should be subject to the same processes and procedures, regardless of identity, and that bias should be erased at work.
However, a focus on diversity and equality may not be enough to level the playing field for those who have been historically underrepresented. Instead a focus on equity may be necessary. What is the difference between equity and equality? Equality is about giving everyone the same thing. Equity is about making sure that everyone has the same shot at being successful – that might mean giving some folks who started with less a little more.
Most diversity initiatives are focused on getting all different kinds of folks into the organization. Most inclusion initiatives are focused on making sure everyone feels welcome to be there. But, solutions based around equity remain unpopular. For example, having specialized programs to make sure that women and minorities get high-powered champions at work would be a good solution to ensuring that everyone gets an equal opportunity to obtain mentorship and allyship. However, many organizations see these programs as exclusionary and may face backlash for putting them in place. How do we solve this issue?
If organizations focused more on explaining WHY these programs are necessary, within the broader employee population, they may gain popularity and acceptance. When the “why” of these programs is lost on the workforce overall, employees respond in a way that actually makes sense if this knowledge wasn’t readily available – by seeing the programs themselves as doing the opposite of what they purport to do by excluding groups of employees from their use. In other words, it’s important to educate employees about the importance of equity but also about the historical context that makes the presence of these programs necessary in the first place. Without this, the actual core focus of diversity and inclusion programs – fairness and justice – can get lost. The lack of positive results associated with these programs tells the same story. The way these programs are framed may be missing the mark when it comes to actually creating change.
The good news is that increasing perceptions of equity at work makes everyone happier – even those who were never affected by inequities in the first place. But, it’s important to remember that for real change with regard to diversity and inclusion, equity can only be achieved if everyone understands the inequities that already exist. Once employees understand the lack of a level playing field to start with, programs that serve to provide some “extra boxes” to historically underrepresented employees will not be viewed negatively.
From your perspective, it’s really important to make sure that you and your employer are treating everyone fairly – and that may not always mean treating everyone the same way. If you want to increase your own and others’ well-being at work, equity is key. That’s why diversity and inclusion aren’t enough – and why we should all unite to create workplace equity for all.