Is Diversity that Obvious

The popular press has once again distorted the true meaning of diversity. Political critics opine about the lack of diversity in President Obama’s second term, meaning specifically the lack of females and minorities in Cabinet level positions. It’s tempting to think that counting and categorizing people is diversity, but it’s not. Rather, counting and categorizing is gender and racial equality.

Months ago I was invited to a session on diversity, which I declined to attend. Topics focused on “laws affecting diversity”, topics which I thought had more to do with legal compliance and equal opportunity. And then there was the speaker I listened to recently, equating the lack of females in senior management as a lack of diversity. Again and yet again, I thought the essence of diversity was lost in popular hype.

Gender and racial equality, equal opportunity, and affirmative action are part of and were the early influencers of corporate diversity programs. However, diversity goes far beyond the obvious characteristics that are easy to see. It is much deeper. It embodies so many cultural variables and these cultural variables attach to much more that a person’s ethnic background and upbringing. Cultural variables attach to groups of all types, family groups, religious groups, social groups, and professional groups to name a few. Individuals are members of many different groups, so they are influenced by many different variables. Every organization has its own unique culture. So, cultural variables also attach to organizations.

In order to understand diversity and how it plays out in organizations, we have to look beyond basic characteristics and also explore the basics of culture. Culture is the acquired knowledge people use to interpret experiences and generate behavior. It is

• Something shared by almost all members of some social group
• Something older members of a group try to pass on to younger members
• Something that shapes behavior or structures one’s perception of the world

Consider a case study about strategic changes in organizations that discusses understanding organizational context – ecosystems described as assumptions, artifacts and interactions. Essentially, it was describing culture and recognizing that within an organization’s culture, subcultures exist. In the case at hand it was the subculture of the sales team and that of the technology team. Each brings different cultural assumptions and traits. Point: it is imperative for each to recognize the differences in their work styles and assumptions in order for the change to be successful. The study never used the word diversity but made an excellent business case for diversity.

In government and in business, diversity is important. Different groups and individuals bring different perspectives and points of view that can positively affect change, policymaking and governance. But those differences are not limited to race, ethnicity and gender. The dimensions of diversity and culture are broad. Many of them are not obvious. To assure success, they should all be recognized and acknowledged. Major employers that embrace diversity and inclusion efforts not only understand the value of differing perspectives, they often see the effect on the bottom line. We all want to work in an environment where others care and we feel accepted and respected.

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