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Workplace Diversity: Vitamin or Pathogen?

Ever since I’ve been in the workplace, which is a long time now, diversity has been touted as a business and moral imperative. Most organizations hold diversity as a core value. Yet 50 years into this push for diversity, and with a workforce growing more diverse by the day, why do we still need to talk about this? Why are women and people of color still so scarce in top leadership roles? Why do so many organizational cultures still reflect the complexion and preferences of their founders, rather than the kaleidoscope of the current workforce? The reasons are many and complex, but I want to explore one in particular: our default mindset toward diversity.

I believe there are two fundamental mindsets that operate at both an individual and collective level: diversity as vitamin, and diversity as pathogen.

The ‘vitamin’ mindset holds that:

  • diversity (the many forms of variety that humans bring) is a necessary element to the health of the enterprise;
  • a deficiency in diversity weakens the system, and the remedy is more diversity; therefore…
  • the organization embraces and metabolizes diversity as medicine – even when it might be hard to digest.

The ‘pathogen’ mindset holds that:

  • what is different from the so-called norm is considered alien, foreign or other;
  • foreign objects stress the system and threaten its health and stasis; therefore…
  • the organization must use its informal ‘immune system’ to neutralize what is different.  This includes behaviors such as silencing, ignoring, isolating, attacking or discouraging people who are different from the norm.

Like most people, you and I would say that we ascribe to the “vitamin” theory. And at the conscious level, we probably do. But researchers at Harvard University’s Project Implicit have shown conclusively that most people have both an explicit, conscious view of diversity, as well as an implicit, unconscious one.

Our conscious mind tends to embrace difference (vitamin view), while our subconscious mind tends to house our more negative perceptions (pathogen view). Research shows that these dual mindsets co-exist within almost all of us. Because both levels of belief are operating simultaneously, we behave inconsistently. We say we value diversity (which we do), but our behavior will reveal any of our ambivalence or fear toward it.  Because we don’t tend to own or acknowledge our implicit biases, those tend to disproportionally drive our behavior. Hence, 50+ years in, we’re still struggling to embody our diversity ideals because we are conflicted.

In their excellent book, “Blindspot,” the Project Implicit researchers emphasize that these dual mindsets are not cause for shame or blame. They are part of the human package. But the beliefs we don’t own or examine can drive some very counterproductive behavior that can only be righted through self-awareness and conscious effort.

These dueling mindsets don’t just happen at the individual level; they occur organizationally, driving the behavior of an entire system.

Like most individuals, most organizations hold a consciously positive mindset toward diversity, and we can see that play out concretely. Many companies hail diversity’s rich virtues. They aggressively recruit for it. They set up diversity and inclusion programs, and sponsor affinity groups around race, gender and sexual orientation. None of this would be happening unless organizations believed, at some level, that difference is a strengthener, worthy of aspiration and investment. Diversity as vitamin.

And yet… If organizations were operating solely from the ‘vitamin’ mindset, workplace life would be very different. Employees of all kinds would feel a more consistent sense of ease and belonging at work. Variety, both in demographics and perspectives, would be reflected and embraced at all levels. Employee retention, satisfaction and turnover rates would be consistent across groups. If our sole belief were that diversity was a nutritional necessity for organizational health, we’d take our vitamins – happily and often.

Our lived experience reveals the diversity-as-pathogen mindset is also strongly at work. Often without intent, organizations will treat a person who seems “different” the same way a body would treat a foreign object: as a threat. Like the body, organizations will deploy an autonomic cultural immune system to isolate or neutralize that disruption to the norm.

Here are some of the indicators of the diversity immune system at work at the interpersonal or group level:

  • The minority person or point of view is repeatedly excluded, ignored or negated.
  • People are spending significant energy tending the wounds of conduct that, intended or not, diminishes them.
  • Some groups of people chronically struggle to be heard or included.
  • Those who raise questions about inequity are told that they’re seeing the situation incorrectly.  They’re often accused of being “sensitive,” “angry” or “difficult.”

Here are some indicators of the ‘diversity as pathogen’ mindset working at the systemic level:

  • Pay gaps might exist between different demographic groups doing the same work.
  • An organization’s retention rates may be inconsistent across demographic groups.
  • The ranks of senior leadership may not reflect a variety of backgrounds and points of view.
  • New employees who are not white, male and heterosexual may still be referred to as “diversity hires:” as if white/male/hetero is the standard of sameness and all others are, well, “other.”
  • An organization may have succeeded at hiring a diverse workforce, but finds that a disproportionate percentage of non- white/male/hetero employees feel undervalued, underutilized, over-securitized or excluded.

If your organization is experiencing any of these dynamics, it’s facing an opportunity you may not have considered. Rather than building new policies, procedures or programs, consider first examining the organization’s underlying mindset(s), and identify how those are expressed through behavior, culture, systems and outcomes. Awareness isn’t everything, but it’s the necessary starting place.

Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.
~ James Baldwin

Let’s Celebrate Women By Being Uncomfortable

I hate Women’s History Month. Don’t get me wrong; I think it’s vitally important to keep remembering that – and why – women matter. It’s crucial that we keep examining and updating our perceptions of women, so that we see them in ways that are ever-more complete, current and correct. I just don’t think that Women’s History Month (“WHM”) accomplishes these ends very well. Unfortunately, WHM is often reduced to an annual box-checking exercise that masquerades as a demonstration of commitment to women.

I should know. I used to be a Diversity officer for a large organization. The traditional observance of WHM was this: We went into our storage closets and dusted off a bunch of yellowed lithographs of exceptional women. We put the photos up in the hallways (and removed them promptly on April 1st). We held a lunch and brought in a speaker or two to motivate and educate. Usually, the only people in the audience were women. And then we crossed off the “Women-valued-for-this-year” item on our organizational to-do list. We meant well, but I don’t think we helped anyone. Even though it was totally unsatisfying, I never figured out how to do something more meaningful. The only option I saw was to discontinue the charade.

Today, 25 years later, I believe that we should celebrate Women’s History Month (and every other “History Month”) by agreeing to make ourselves and each other uncomfortable.  I would like to see March become an annual invitation to reengage, refresh and reexamine our collective narrative about women. I’d like it to be the month where  leaders of both genders come together to assess where women actually stand in their organization, community or country. Where are we with parity, really? What advances can we celebrate, and how do we replicate and increase them?  Where are the gaps between what we say we believe and what we actually do? How do we find that out? What subtle and obvious barriers must women negotiate that their male counterparts do not? What are the organizational ‘clubs’ and power centers in which women still have reduced access or sway? What are the beliefs, behaviors and systems that accomplish this exclusion? When we look at our key strategic challenges, what could women’s perspectives and skill bring to the table that we may be missing?

Women’s History Month is also an invitation for us women to enter into our own discomfort. March is as good a time as any to evaluate ourselves as unflinchingly as we wish our organizations would evaluate themselves. Are there ways in which I have held myself back from making my own small history? Are there situations in which I routinely choose comfort over challenge? Are there necessary battles that I’ve backed away from? Or fights I’ve been fighting ineffectively or for too long? Are there places in which I have abandoned my own vision, principles or well-being in order to keep the waters calm? Are there younger women around me who are withering, either from the absence of a mentor or from active sabotage? Are there some paths that I could clear so that other women can make their own history?

Men… you too. Are you relaxing your attention on parity, since the tides of favor and power are starting to shift? Do you levy criticisms against women that you don’t levy against men? Do you hold women in your sphere to higher or lower standards than the men? What one step could you take to check that your impact on women aligns more fully with your best intentions?

Avoid the token nod to Women’s History. Organizations, beware self-satisfaction because you hired a lunchtime speaker. Women, resist viewing March as a a month of sanctioned victimhood. Men, nap not on your laurels. For Women’s History Month, let’s put ourselves on the hook for real dialogue and meaningful change. Let’s be willing to get uncomfortable this month and see what happens.