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Inclusivity and diversity: What’s the difference?

Georgina Guthrie

Georgina Guthrie

June 23, 2021

An employee who can make fast decisions is an asset — even better if they tend to agree with their peers. However, while it might result in quick results in the boardroom, having an entire team of link-minded people who work similarly might not be good news. While there’s a pleasure in all being of the same mindset, multiple studies have proven this doesn’t yield the best results.

The fact is that companies with a more diverse workforce do better. For example, research by the global management consulting firm McKinsey & Company revealed that businesses ranking in the top quarter for gender and ethnic diversity are 35% more likely to have above-average financial returns. Another study in the Harvard Business Review found that organizations with above-average total diversity have 19% points higher innovation revenues and 9% points higher EBIT margins, on average.

Welcoming diversity can become a competitive advantage if you make your workplace feel inclusive. But inclusivity takes work. This means translating intent into action. As a company, you are eliminating biases in the hiring process, ensuring equal career opportunities for all, and making the work environment a safe and welcoming place for everyone.

What is diversity?

Diversity refers to a range of differences across your workforce. Here are some of the different types of diversity you’re likely to encounter in the workplace:

  • Cultural diversity
  • Racial diversity
  • Age diversity
  • Sex and gender diversity
  • Sexual orientation
  • Neurodiversity
  • Religious diversity

How to make your business inclusive

Studies show that inclusion brings heaps of benefits, including a more engaged team, better decision-making, and reduced turnover. Employees who feel included are more likely to participate and share information, as well as offer their diverse opinions. Here’s how to promote it in your workforce.

1. Aim for inclusivity, not diversity

Diversity shouldn’t be a once-in-a-while box-ticking exercise. This will only lead to tokenism — which puts undue pressure on that person due to added visibility, scrutiny, and the pressure of being ‘the authority’ of an entire group.

It can also lead to altered behavior. As a coping strategy, tokenized people often downplay their differences in an attempt to blend in, leading to unique individuals shaping themselves to match the homogenous majority, which negates the benefits.

Not all attempts at diversity are tokenism, but there are a few red flags.

“If someone is referred to by their identities while other employees are not, they might be a token (such as ‘our South Asian female board member, Ms. Khan’),” says Jo Eckler, PsyD, licensed clinical psychologist and author of I Can’t Fix You—Because You’re Not Broken. “Another common example of tokenism is someone being asked to present at a conference, but it’s always on being a person of that identity in that field rather than their work standing on its own, for instance, ‘Being a woman in tech.’”

So how do you avoid it?

2. Start at the top.

The easiest way to ensure inclusivity is to have diversity at the very top of your organization. Have leaders diverse in gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, education, nationality, etc. This is the best route toward an inclusive company that is naturally diverse.

“Many organizations attempt to teach diversity but don’t practice it. Having diverse team members at all levels of your organization will ensure that your team members see the humanistic qualities in people of different backgrounds. Don’t just talk the talk. Walk the walk and do the work of finding qualified team members so that they can learn to work together and relate with one another,” says LaKesha Womack, Womack Consulting Group to Forbes.

The bottom line? If you aim for diversity, you’ll hit tokenism — but if you aim for inclusivity, diversity will follow.

3. Address biases

People tend to interact with and reward those similar to themselves. In organizations, leaders often hire and promote people who share their own behaviors and attitudes, creating what’s known as a ‘prototype for success.’ This leads to similarity biases that limit the number of candidates for positions, projects, and promotions. The problem is, it’s really hard to eliminate biases.

“There’s pretty wide agreement that you can’t train away bias. Biases are mostly subconscious, and exposure to training can sometimes activate them rather than help to suppress them,” says Dr. Frank Dobbin, a professor of social sciences at Harvard. However, eliminating discriminatory biases is vital if you’re to be welcoming to all. So what’s the best route?

There are several options. Consider widening your hiring pool so you don’t just recruit from universities or services used by predominantly white, middle-class people. Hide names and photos on resumes. Proactively review access to things like training, awards, professional networks, and events.

It’s also important to look at your data: hiring, promotion, and job type — then ask professionals to look at the results and identify bottlenecks or trends. Doing this will help you hire inclusively and spot inclusivity problems within the organization. Here are some questions to ask:

  • Who are we hiring?
  • Why don’t we have more diversity in certain positions or on certain teams?
  • Who are we promoting at the highest rate?
  • Whose opinions have I sought?
  • Who is being included in key decisions?
  • Who has access to what information?
  • Are leaders building relationships with those different from themselves?

4. Have clear values

Every decision, project, and interaction is guided by your organization’s values — so make sure inclusivity is one of them.

Again, this starts at the top. It’s the manager’s job to ensure everyone feels valued and that they understand the value of their colleagues equally. Team-building exercises can help individuals learn, understand, and appreciate the different strengths of their colleagues (rather than strong-arming them into accepting it based on simply being told it’s true).

In fact, majority groups can feel excluded or see diversity initiatives as ‘reverse favoritism’ — so it’s important to be aware of this and engage everyone in conversations on diversity. It’s also vital managers stay on the lookout for discriminatory behavior. This can be encouraged through awareness training. When managers know what to look out for, they’ll be in a better position to step in.

5. Make your workplace physically inclusive

Inclusive workspace design is all about offering choice. It’s impossible to include everyone, but the more collaborative you make the design process, the more inclusive your workplace will be.

This includes looking beyond physical differences and acknowledging mental health and different styles of working, too. These things don’t need to be groundbreaking or costly, but they do need to be well thought out, subtle, effective, and done in a way that doesn’t call undue attention to anyone. Here are some things you can do:

  • Include ramps as well as stairs
  • Make sure door frames are wide enough for wheelchairs
  • Fit doors with handles rather than knobs (which can be difficult for people with limited hand movement to operate)
  • Provide ergonomic chairs and keyboards
  • Incorporate a range of closed and open-plan spaces to suit people’s working styles.
  • Install standing stations for those who like to move around or stand up while working
  • Make sure information is displayed in large print and/or with images for those who have dyslexia/don’t speak the primary language spoken in your workplace
  • Use a range of communication channels, including video conferencing tools, chat apps, email, phone, and project management platforms that give all employees equal access to information
  • Make sure alarms are multi-sensory (sight and sound)
  • Avoid strong air scents that can be irritating to those with asthma (as well as being simply unpleasant to many and an air pollutant)
  • Invest in smart heating and lighting that lets workers adjust their environment according to their needs.

Final thoughts

Everyone deserves equality. Equal opportunity to work, to safety, and to achieve success. Making sure this is true of your business isn’t just fair; it’s vital for the well-being of your workforce. But this is only achievable when you’re inclusive.

True inclusivity is achieved when there’s diversity at the top: when leaders know how to appreciate differences, how to be open to change, and how to offer choice. Not reluctantly, or as a box-ticking exercise, but because they understand that it’s good for them, good for their employees’ well-being, and good for business.



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