‘Diversity’: Are We Talking About it AGAIN?!

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Diversity is a decent word, isn’t it? It implies the notion of valuing differences, inclusiveness and equality. It stands against prejudices, discrimination and unfair treatment. We talk about Diversity in our effort to make all racial and cultural backgrounds equally matter, to provide women with fair opportunities, and to allow any other minorities feel safe and included. Yes, diversity brings up the notion of differences, suggesting celebrating and utilizing our differences, as opposed to being diversity-blind.

Yet, in spite of all the ‘goodness’ and ‘rightness’ implied in our rhetoric about diversity, it doesn’t really seem to work. Instead, it has become a buzzword that people get tired of. A relevant HBR article by Dover, Major and Kaiser (2016) cites several studies, which show that diversity programs and initiatives do very little in terms of actually increasing demographic diversity and promoting fair treatment of everyone. What these pro-diversity messages do though, is that they seem to succeed in creating a comfortable ‘defense’ against discrimination claims and inaccurate beliefs in fair treatment. As one recent study shows, pro-diversity messages make the traditionally favored majorities (e.g. white men of a dominant culture) believe that minorities are being treated fairly, irrespective of whether this is actually the case or not. In other words, in a company with anti-discrimination policies, the dominant majority tends to believe it is working (especially for women and minorities), which oftentimes may lead to discounting any claims of unfair treatment. ‘We do have diversity and anti-discrimination policies after all!’- seems to be the ‘winning’ argument here. Interestingly, the very same argument may actually defend companies against real allegations of discrimination (e.g. the 2011 Walmart case), hence making organizations less accountable for discriminatory practices.

Moreover, Dover et al. (2016) show that pro-diversity messages may not only ‘sound good, but do little’, but also do not convince minorities and, last but not least, make the majority feel threatened. The authors’ experiment showed that when being interviewed for the job, white men performed more poorly and were more stressed in the condition of a pro-diversity company, as opposed to a company that did not mention diversity.

Maybe we could attribute the threat response to the word diversity itself, as it shares the same Latin root with the word ‘different’, and we should be very well aware of our evolution-based automatic response to ‘different’. We could also turn to the SCARF model, which was discussed in one of my previous blog posts, and assume that when a company engages in ‘we give fair opportunity to everyone, and we need to promote women and minorities’ rhetoric, the dominant population may react to the threat of their status.

Whatever the underlying mechanisms however, what global leaders need to take into consideration are the influences of diversity on the dominant majority, as well as its current ineffectiveness for the targeted minorities. What next?

Practical implications

  • Craft messages more consciously

The authors of the HBR article suggest that global leaders should be more careful when crafting their messages. For example, diversity messages may sometimes sound too favorable towards minorities, rather than inclusive and equal.

  • Move from talk and awareness to practice

David Livermore urges global leaders and cultural intelligence (CQ) professionals to shift from working on increasing awareness (which mostly doesn’t translate directly into action) to the practical stuff. Specifically, cross-cultural or CQ training should deal with practical situations and applicable solutions, such as ‘how to deal with cross-cultural conflict?’ or ‘How to talk about differences in the team?’

  • Stop shaming, start inspiring

Finally, Livermore makes a great point about the way we speak about diversity. He suggests that currently the tone is rather punitive and shaming. For example, ‘do you realize how your words influence this minority?!’. Although shaming can definitely make people feel bad about their behavior for a while, it doesn’t seem to be a good long-term motivational strategy. On the other hand, we could approach the topic of diversity from the standpoint of possible gains and benefits for everyone. I completely agree that a positive outlook is much more inspiring and motivating for change, than getting caught up in all the mistakes and shortcomings we are dealing with at the moment.

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