What is the ultimate goal of diversity and inclusion work? Headlines are full of stories about underrepresentation and limited opportunity of women and minorities in the workplace. The #MeToo movement shed light on the ubiquity of the challenges working women face in every industry from tech to hospitality to manufacturing. The Black Lives Matter movement is bringing visibility to a breadth of issues for black men and women in America. Often the end goal is described as creating a more equitable society, where opportunity exists for all. But for employers, diversity goals need to be more concrete. As this field of practice has matured, they’ve started to see data around what works and what doesn’t.
Companies have learned that simply creating gender or racial parity in the makeup of their workforce doesn’t necessarily create equal opportunity. Expanding access and opportunity is not just about bringing a diverse population to work together, but also creating an environment where people feel that they can bring their whole selves to work. The redefining of the field to “diversity and inclusion” reflects that expansion of its goal.
Employers have also begun to be able to see and measure the tangible business value of diversity and have seen that these efforts have a multi-layered bottom line, driving opportunity for individuals, business results for organizations, and more equitable participation in the economy.
In 2013, the Center for Talent Innovation (CTI) described two vectors of diversity work that drive market growth and innovation:
Inherent Diversity: This is something that is a part of you. Your age, ability, sexual orientation, gender, ethnic background, or other trait. These inherent elements don’t typically change, and are often visible to others. Inherent diversity is typically the element D&I programs consider. Many organizations leverage affinity groups to allow individuals with a shared gender, ethnicity, or other common identity to connect and share experiences. The goal of increasing inherent diversity often revolves around promoting opportunity for underrepresented groups, and is typically visible through recruiting and hiring practices, leadership development programs, and demographic metrics.
Acquired Diversity: This is something you have learned or experienced over your life. Exposure to different cultures through travel, ability to speak other languages, military experience, working with a global team, or living in a different socioeconomic environment than the one in which you were raised. Acquired diversity is learned and can change and evolve over time.
Thought diversity falls into the ‘acquired’ category. Two people of identical age and gender, with the same ethnic background will, despite their demographic similarities, have had different experiences, different perspectives, and different ideas. Inclusion work in the thought diversity space involves creating a culture that values heterogeneous ideas and sees the promise of different perspectives as a driver of better decisions, increased innovation, and stronger connections with a diverse customer base.
But the concept of thought diversity is not without controversy. In 2017 the head of Apple’s diversity initiatives was widely criticized for a comment she made at the One Young World Summit in Colombia:
“And I’ve often told people a story—there can be 12 white blue-eyed blonde men in a room and they are going to be diverse too because they’re going to bring a different life experience and life perspective to the conversation.”
Critics of this concept of thought diversity worry that elevating this perspective may undermine the work of D&I to broaden opportunity in areas of inherent diversity. But others argue that diversity of thought is actually the ultimate goal of D&I work—by bringing together people with a wide variety of inherent diversity, and creating opportunities for empathy and shared values, thought diversity will thrive. But there is a valid concern that thought diversity alone can become an excuse when organizations fail to move the needle on inherent diversity metrics.
In their research, CTI found that acquired diversity is valuable in leaders because those leaders tend to foster inclusive company cultures, creating that essential environment where employees of all backgrounds feel comfortable contributing their unique perspective:
“Inclusive leader behaviors effectively “unlock” the innovative potential of an inherently diverse workforce, enabling companies to increase their share of existing markets and lever open brand new ones. By encouraging a proliferation of perspectives, leaders who foster a speak-up culture also enable companies to realize greater efficiencies and trim costs—another way that innovation drives bottom-line value.”
That inclusive culture is what makes employees at all levels feel comfortable proposing novel ideas, speaking up when they first spot an issue, or making a decision in the moment. In that way, thought diversity can work in service of increasing inherent diversity, moving a company toward creating a representative workforce that provides every employee with equal opportunity—and reaps the rewards.