Should the definition of Diversity include people that explicitly reject some aspects of DE&I? Or should Inclusion demand reciprocity from everyone who requests to be valued and heard? Or do both Diversity and Inclusion have to be all-encompassing? What may sound like a no-brainer turns out to unfold as a deep ideological divide, which has remained unnoticed for quite a while.
DE&I 2023 Trilogy (part 1)
Which dimensions do you include in your Diversity definition? Which topics are actively addressed and which ones are just (passively) mentioned? These are common questions to kick-start DE&I discussions and they can become a way to pre-determine long-term inclusion – or exclusion – of difficult aspects. While the breadth of ‘diversity’ was discussed since day one more complicated issues were introduced in the past years. Some have the capacity to disrupt the (healthy) evolution of DE&I. The seemingly simple request for ‘diversity of opinion’, for example, is frequently used – or misused? – to even challenge self-determination of identities. This leads us to fundamental questions including
- How broad – or inclusive – is our understanding of ‘diversity’?
- What are the ethical standards that we consider foundational for DE&I?
- How do we deal with different thoughts, opinions or values?
- To what extend does our DE&I framework adapt to varying contexts?
This first part of the 2023 DE&I Trilogy discusses these key questions and the following parts will look at implications on bottom-up activism and top-down leadership and the use of power in DE&I.
Core(?) Dimensions vs. Value-Adding Ones
Our first White Book on International D&I found that the EU has a notably consistent and comprehensive framework for non-discrimination, the US has a clear and strong foci while the UK, Canada and Australia tend to be more inclusive regarding topics mentioned and less specific regarding applicable contexts. This summary finding describes the roots of DE&I and it should remind us of the fierce (political) discussions that took place at the beginning of our journeys. Over the years, empirical research added evidence that usually not the demographic differences of people add value in a corporate or business context. Instead, and depending on the context, e.g., R&D or sales, additional aspects such as education or tenure were found to be key in generating value-add.
The Pros and Cons of ‘Diversity of Thought’
Consequently, ‘diversity of thought’ was added to D&I portfolio and it felt as if this had been the missing piece to bring almost everybody on board. For many stakeholders supported this aspect for its inclusiveness yet at the expense of side-lining uncomfortable topics. This became a real ‘diversity of thought’ issue: people could tackle a comfortable aspect and would not have to confront themselves with prevailing -isms let alone with systemic biases of any form.
The Evil Brother called ‘Diversity of Opinion’
This ‘getting away’ advantage was subsequently extrapolated to introduce ‘diversity of opinion’, which can sound close to diversity of thought but it adds a problematic layer: For the key idea is that some people do not agree with, e.g., certain life styles, choices or even identities (!). While these preferences are perfectly fine for any person to organise their lives, they become hostile when someone expects others to live according to standards or narratives that are not theirs. The latter has become particularly problematic in post-racism or post-sexism, etc., discussions.
The Nasty Narrative of Negation
I have talked to quite prominent stakeholders who deny experiences of discrimination and systemic inequities, claiming these were resolved and today’s policies and processes were both equitable and meritocratic. Individual women or people of colour who made it to the top serve as proof points. Potentially unfair different treatment is attributed to the individual constitution and dismissed as ‘perception’ while the influence of gender or appearance is negated. In a nutshell, this eliminates the WHAT and the WHY of D&I:
- Selected examples are combined with
- Claims that negate gaps, issues or biases and
- Generalised in a way that makes DE&I collapse.
This is why and when we must ask if ‘diversity of opinion’ crosses a red line, and we have to find ways to respond to requests for these opinions to be included – especially if they are camouflaged as a variation of ‘diversity of thought’. We should also do so to remain credible in our strive for comprehensiveness and inclusion.
Read about early warning signs for an erosion of DE&I
Case Study: Elon Musk’s ‘freed’ Twitter
In fact, one current example of the dynamics around ‘diversity of opinion’ is found in Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter. He claimed wanting to reinstall freedom of speech and started to do so by firing, among others, the Director who was in charge of fighting hate speech! Later, he blocked critical journalists and tried to ban the mentioning of platforms that are an alternative to Twitter. I find it difficult not to see both the irony and the evil in this behaviour, including a blatant misuse of power (which will be tackled in part 3 of this trilogy). The Twitter case also points to different ways how to deal with ‘diversity of opinion’ claims.
Solution Step 1: Insisting on Reciprocity
One approach that changed the course of the dynamics at Twitter can be applied to ‘diversity of opinion’ in DE&I: Insisting on reciprocity can show, as a first step, that whenever you request your opinion to be heard – and accepted – you will have to do the same with others. This, however, is not the only motivation of ‘diversity of opinion’ as described before. The approach is also used to try to remove unloved (or hated?) aspects from the DE&I context. Often times, ‘diverse opinions’ do not want to be confronted with colourism, sexism, ableism or same-sex attraction. These topics are, by the way, at the core of most Nationalist movement. From many strong responses, this opening statement at Cologne Pride Gala seems to nail it:
“None of us is entitled to a repressive ‘opinion’ over the self-determination of others. It is not for any of us to (…) decide for (others) how they should live. That is not freedom, that is hate. And hate is not an opinion!”
said Birgit Bungarten, member of the board of Queer Network NRW. She not only illustrates the red line of invading someone else’s space, she also refers to the value side of the issue.
Solution Step 2: Insisting on Values
Depending on the context (societal/political or organisational) shared values can be an effective way to discuss the interrelation of individual freedom (e.g. of opinion or speech) and the inviolability of other person’s dignity. Inevitably, the interpretation of values varies which makes the process of identifying overlap enriching and identity-forming. This can be complex in a society whereas a company can establish mandatory policies. In any case, multilateral communication is key to allow everyone to add their perspectives and learn about those of others. This exchange is critical to ensuring a truly shared understanding of values and how they serve as standards and translate into constructive, inclusive behaviours.
Why do we have an issue of ‘diversity of opinion’
Solutions that involve everyone and aim at defining common ground should be supported as win-win – so why do we experience destructive dynamics of ‘diversity of opinion’? Our previous analyses have shown that, for many years, D&I was conducted in a way that felt normative (‘language policing’) and prescriptive (dos and don’ts) to many. They did not feel included in the concept, the storyline or the implementation. ‘Getting men onboard of gender diversity’ or ‘letting white people be actively involved in racial equity’ was as much proclaimed as it didn’t materialise. In mixed ability or LGBT, however, the respective privileged groups are more actively included as allies. Although these individuals had been ‘pro D&I’ already prior, their engagement increases credibility and outreach. But these few good practices do not change the overall polarising dynamic D&I has had over decades as it
- suggested difference was always ‘better’ that ‘similarity’ (c.f. ‘The (arguable) value of being different’)
- accusing privileged groups in a generalised way
- calling any progress ‘too little’ and/or ‘too slow’ (c.f. following part of this trilogy)
- staying in a filter and network bubble where groupthink prevails (http://en.diversitymine.eu/di-must-step-out-of-its-own-comfort-zone/ )
Read more about how to design DE&I in a relatable way
The bottom-line for DE&I should be, once more, to be more self-critical and use analytical evidence to evaluate messages and activities. Here is a non-empirical yet valuable tool for you to kick-start your reflection.
Check your needs to tackle ‘diversity of opinion’
As a DE&I practitioner, you may wonder if any of the described issues exist within your organisation – they might not be as obvious as described above. The following check list of indicators helps you to reflect your situation. If you have recently noticed four or more of the following statements or reactions, we recommend you prioritise ‘buy-in’.
- “There are so many more differences beyond, e.g., race or gender…!”
- “What about creating a diversity programme for (white) men…?”
- “I don’t care about gender or age… but only about performance and working together effectively…!”
- “What about discrimination of whites/men/Christians – where do we address this…?”
- “My values are against same-sex relationships… so I think LGBT should not be protected under DE&I!”
- “How do we know if an outcome is related to gender or skin colour, and not simply an individual issue?”
- “What really add value is our diversity of thought…!”
Any of these responses are likely to be a sign of misperceptions based on either a lack of consistency of your DE&I and corporate core messages or on a lack of inclusiveness of the way your DE&I work is implemented. You should take them very seriously as they can easily and quickly lead to blow-up or destructive counteraction.
‘Diversity of opinion’ is not an innocent addition to broaden the spectrum of DE&I just as ‘diversity of though’ has never been the silver bullet to integrate personal demographics and business needs. In a complex and at the same time polarised world, DE&I can only be successful if it is perceived and experienced to be both
- inclusive of subordinate AND dominant groups and
- flagging out and addressing personal and systemic biases, regardless of their root causes.
A strong foundation of shared values serves as the most robust base for a truly inclusive and equitable approach to DE&I. These values must be vividly discussed by all and brought to life in a way that everyone experiences them positively, every day.
Michael Stuber is The International D&I Engineer and founder of European Diversity Research & Consulting, the EMEA level D&I pioneer, and provider of insight-based, international and innovative DEI diagnostics, strategies and solutions. Visit his company website at www.european-diversity.com
Following articles of this trilogy will be referenced here once published.