With more women entering the workforce, global travel, centuries of migration and increasing international interdependence for trade and people skills, organizations are increasingly diverse. Achieving diversity and inclusion is an organizational imperative in modern times in order to serve customers and stakeholders better. I was fortunate enough to listen to President Barack Obama speak on diversity couple months ago along with a few colleagues. In addition, I just wrote a discussion paper on this topic this weekend for one of my business degree courses. This blogpost is a brief summary of what I heard and read thus far.

In Barack Obama’s words, “the world is small and there is no going back from needing to work with people who don’t look like us, talk like us or think like us. Diversity and inclusion are not just nice to have but they are the engine and motor of the world we live in.” When diversity is ignored, employees may become disengaged, recruitment may suffer, and talented individuals, particularly those who are women and minorities, may leave the organization. Each team member brings a set of skills and some blind spots to the table. Organizations without diversity lose out on important perspectives and contributions. Organizations investing in diversity and inclusion programs have better collective team vision and achieve greater successes. (Jeffrey Pfeffer. Managing with Power. HBS Press, Boston, MA. 1994)

As the saying goes, diversity is being invited to the party and inclusion is being named to the planning committee. Diversity has several different dimensions – race, gender, cultural background, religion, sexual orientation, and socioeconomic background, personalities, thinking patterns, leadership and managerial styles. Organizations striving for inclusiveness would have to intentionally balance the team for job qualifications and competencies first and then balance the team for diversity and inclusiveness across all the different dimensions. The article, “Power of Talk: Who Gets Heard and Why” by Deborah Tannen in the September 1995 issue of Harvard Business Review discusses the importance of language, linguistic styles, and our own limited perceptions of what confidence, competence and authority look like. Women use conversations to build rapport whereas men use conversations to establish status relative to each other. Language is not only used to communicate ideas, but also to negotiate relationships. Differences in conversational style and linguistic norms play a large role in how people understand each other and like each other. Directness or indirectness, pacing and pausing, word choice, jokes, stories, questions, apologies and cultural factors make up a person’s linguistic style. People in powerful positions are likely to reward linguistic styles similar to their own.

Organizations face several challenges on their journey to inclusiveness. Not all employees may be racially and culturally sensitive, leading to expressions of ‘differencism,’ which is similar to sexism and racism, but includes a wider range of differences between people in the workplace. Bias is largely unconscious. Policies against discrimination and bias training help reduce overt bias to some extent, but they are not sufficient. Normal things like what we eat, what we wear and our religious practices may be fair game for insensitive comments, unless there is a collective openness in the workplace.  Political rhetoric and divisive talk by politicians do not help the comfort level of those employees who do not subscribe to divisive ideologies. In an article on office politics by Michelle King, David Denyer, and Emma Parry in the September 2018 issue of Harvard Business Review, the authors describe the disadvantages of office politics for women and racial minorities. They found in their research that these groups are less engaged in office politics and as a consequence, they are labeled politically naïve. There is a prevailing view that organizational politics are an expression of masculine culture, and that women perform better in cooperative environments. Networking and talking about one’s accomplishments are viewed negatively when women engage in them, although they have the opposite effect for men. A problem related to “differencism” is social dominance orientation. This makes people believe that some groups (based on gender, sexual orientation, religion, race, nationality, caste, sect, etc.) are superior to others, which makes way for stereotyping individuals and not being able to see efforts and achievements in a fair and balanced manner.

Luckily, in modern times, there is far greater openness and exposure to different cultures and societies and greater recognition for the benefits of diversity and inclusion. In a recent article, Dr. Barbara Stoll, a pediatrician who rose the ranks to become the dean of a medical school, wrote that women hold up half they sky, and that they bring unique perspectives and life experiences to the table that need to be recognized and championed. Melinda Gates and Sheryl Sandberg have devoted several chapters of their books, Moment of Lift, and Lean In, respectively, to how organizations can explicitly strive towards achieving greater diversity and inclusion. Organizations can explicitly recruit for diversity once job competency criteria are met. Organizations can take the opportunity to establish mentoring and sponsoring programs and develop internal promotion pathways and career ladders for the underrepresented groups including women. It is important for organizations to explicitly direct leaders and managers to incorporate diversity into hiring decisions. Engaging men as allies is necessary, as they hold up the other half of the sky. The research report by Center for women and business at Bentley University is worth reviewing by those interested in the topic. Some organizations disallow after-work dinners and before-work breakfast meetings in order to allow greater representation of women with children at the company social events. It has been said that President Obama held dedicated meetings with women who were supporting each other, so that the women could benefit from amplification of each other’s voices. Because of the social influence phenomenon, people have an easier time connecting with people who are similar to themselves. Organizations can allow creation of social networks, friendship networks and communication networks with the explicit goal of advancing inclusiveness.

For individuals who feel like they came upon an invisible ceiling, Barack Obama had this advice. “If you feel like you are butting against a glass ceiling, just channel your energy in more productive ways rather than waste your time complaining or being angry. We are a product of history. There are years of bias that goes into some decisions and the decisions against you may be rooted in history and not necessarily personal against you.”

There are several opportunities for organizations to implement known programs to improve diversity and inclusiveness, and also to innovate and create new models. Individuals can do their part to educate themselves on diversity, unconscious biases, gain greater exposure to different cultures and societies, and take some time to understand those who are different from themselves in the workplace.