#humans: Diversity & Inclusion, more than just ticking a box

Humans // posted 20-05-2020

Diversity Officers are everywhere; organisations deem themselves diverse and inclusive; and token minorities are used to add pretence to the average marketing campaign. To find out what being diverse and inclusive really means, we sat down with Nava Hinrichs, Head of Executive Education & Capacity Building in Migration at Maastricht University and all-round Diversity & Inclusion expert.

What does diversity & inclusion (D&I) mean for you?
Diversity & Inclusion has to do with how we function as a society. It’s a way of making sure we bring out the best in each other and our society. As human beings, we are unique and have outward differences – from cultural and educational background to where or how we grew up.  Yet we’re also intrinsically very similar in our humanness, in our need and desire for connection, purpose, joy and fulfilment. D&I encapsulates those two concepts. 

Recently it’s become such a buzzword when, for me, it has so much more weight and importance. It permeates so many aspects of work and life that I want to make sure it’s given the gravitas it deserves.

What’s the difference between diversity and inclusion?
Diversity is the state of being diverse or different. I’m cautious about using the word difference because usually in society it has a negative connotation, when in fact it denotes variety. Variety in many different forms, whether it be age, gender, viewpoint, religion, physical appearance, etc. Inclusion is having all those differences as a source of richness and celebration rather than a source of discord.

There’s an analogy I often use to describe the difference. Diversity is having lots of different people come to your party, while Inclusion is having them all feel comfortable enough to mingle, dance and socialise together. Diversity is the variety within society, and inclusion is when that variety is accepted, embraced and celebrated.

As you said, D&I is all the rage. Some organisations see it as a box to tick. What do you think organisations actually need to do to become diverse and inclusive?
Inform yourself and your team. What are the effects of diversity? What are the effects of not having diversity? For your business, your teams, and your employees. It will help clarify why this topic is crucial to your business.

And in terms of ticking boxes, it would be a complete disaster if a D&I Officer or company were to hire a diverse workforce just for the sake of box-ticking. In fact, research shows that it would be counterproductive. It would create more tensions within teams. Diversity needs to be managed and implemented into the core of the strategy, not seen as an afterthought to HR policy.

By having effective management of diversity, it’s easier to become aware of differences and potential tensions; it creates a soft space for them to land. Rather than financing grand gestures, invest your time and energy in permeating the feeling of diversity and inclusion throughout the organisation.

Can you give an example of an organisation working with diversity and inclusion, and the process they went through?
Let’s take Better Future as an example. An extremely cohesive team; willing to be open and vulnerable with each other, with a diverse range of nationalities and backgrounds. We could say there’s a very high level of fertile ground for diversity and inclusion. Yet even such an evolved team like yours was surprised by its own assumptions on D&I. Now imagine what this means for teams that are far less evolved or cohesive.

What’s important to note here is that awareness of D&I isn’t a destination. It’s an on-going process. It would be a huge mistake if someone were to say: I did a workshop. I’m aware. I’ve ticked that box. For me, it’s only a true sign of success if someone changes their mindset from ‘D&I is a destination’ to ‘I’m continuously learning, evolving and raising my awareness of D&I’.

Do you have any practical tips for organisations to help create awareness?
Start with a workshop on D&I. Ideally a full-day workshop that’s facilitated by someone outside the organisation who’s highly experienced in these kinds of processes. Someone from Better Future for example.

In parallel with this, organise a workshop or one-on-one conversations with senior management. The initiative to invest in D&I needs to come from both levels: senior management and those working on the shop floor. If senior management understands that D&I needs to permeate all decision-making processes, it’ll lead to success. On top of that, D&I must be reflected in the composition of the board because that sends a really loud message.

In terms of day-to-day activities within the company, take steps to identify and overcome blind spots. When hiring new staff, have a diverse interview panel.  Advertisements for new positions need to be carefully worded so they don’t filter out certain groups. When it comes to social company activities, it’s important to bear in mind that a diverse workforce will have different understandings of what an acceptable social activity is. Meetings and giving feedback are also useful moments to overcome blind spots and avoid perpetuating stereotypes. That’s when Culture Mapping can be an interesting activity to test. To discover the different preferences of communication within one team.

So, words and understanding what they truly mean plays an important role..
A lot of research has been done into diverse and inclusive communication. For example, if a job description includes a long list of criteria, there will likely be a disproportionately high number of male applicants. This is because in general, male applicants apply for a job if they feel they match 20-30% of the skills on the list, whereas women won’t apply even if they have 70-80% of the skills on the same list because they focus on their skills deficit. The more criteria, the more likely women will be dissuaded from applying.

What about including or excluding ‘fringe benefits’ in a job description?
Well, some people argue that the term is discriminatory. Sensible working hours for parents with kind, generous maternity leave packages or working from home options are all considered fringe benefits because they’re not a standard part of the job description. Many people think they should be a core benefit, to show that everybody will be taken care of regardless of the choices they make in their personal life.

What’s your view on these benefits being labelled as such?
I think they should be part of the package adjusted to the type of job/sector, in the same way that we have standard pensions or insurance. In this day and age, in the part of the world that we live in, they shouldn’t be a fringe. That a woman has to choose between breast feeding her child or going back to work, or not applying to a job because it might not be compatible with her personal family-life choices is ridiculous.

And what about for men?
The same should apply! In fact, people who are encouraged to take parental leave as well as keep their jobs, are persuaded to remain part of the working world. To continue contributing to the economy rather than being detached from it. Countries like the Netherlands actually suffer a lot from this because many people abandon economic activity altogether. So, if anything, from the economic point of view, it’s actually better to encourage paternity or maternity leave.

Even at the cost of the economy, so to speak?
I don’t think decisions should only be based on what’s best for the economy. We may have to rethink the economy and come up with a different model. One that won’t jeopardise family life. What the COVID-19 crisis has shown is that yes, some children are frustrated about not going to school, and some parents feel like they are losing their minds from home schooling, but on the plus side families spend more time to together. Parents can be more present. It’s a fantastic social experiment for anthropologists and politicians to see that this is what we need for society. Just imagine what kind of positive repercussions more interconnectedness and parental presence will have for the choices children make later in life. Think: higher self-esteem and an elevated sense of purpose leading to a reduction in petty crime (amongst other things), a sense of stability and belonging, and improved mental health.

To come back to D&I in general, why do you think it’s so beneficial for leaders and organisations?
Our world is increasingly interdependent. The coronavirus pandemic has definitely shown that. The immediate and most urgent causes for concern are public health and economic issues. But this crisis shows that there are so many more things that unify us than divide us. If we don’t find ways to manage the differences and capitalise on them, the future of our organisations and societies will find itself under increasing pressure. We humans are wired to connect, and we’ll be thwarted from doing this - from progressing; finding purpose; finding joy; contributing to society. D&I isn’t just a good thing for organisations, it’s a crucial survival mechanism. To ensure organisations can continue to progress and contribute to society.

What are the top three benefits of D&I?
More diverse teams have been shown to be more productive. People are happier and more content in their work and are less likely to leave their jobs. Which means there’s less turnover in an organisation and more economic gain to be had. These types of benefits have a domino effect.

When your people are given space and dare to stand up to voice their opinions, the echo chamber of the homogenous loop thinking is broken. This means you’re able to spot potential dangers in your decision making. Innovation will increase. More sparks and ideas will fly, and as a result of that, profitability will grow. Having variety is beneficial at the micro-level of individuals and teams as well as the macro-level of the organisation as a whole.

But it’s not the easy road.
Definitely not, and I’m not implying that fostering inclusion in diverse groups is a bed of roses. Differences exist and if they’re left as differences, they’ll cause fights, tension and problems. If they’re managed and taken beyond being perceived differences, you’ll receive all the benefits and rewards. It’s important to push through the initial discomfort.

One step that organisations can take, is to create an attitude of curiosity. Every time you’re confronted by someone who voices a different opinion to yours, be curious and learn from them. Small steps are far more effective than grand gestures. True transformation comes from those small changes in attitude. If that’s something the whole organisation can embrace, true transformation will happen.

What’s your mission? When will you feel that you’ve accomplished your mission?
To continue raising awareness on this issue. And I don’t think I’ll ever feel as though I’ve accomplished it. In fact, if I ever feel like I’ve accomplished my mission, it’ll be a sign that I’ve failed. Awareness of diversity and inclusion is always in progress.

But if I think of it as milestones, then I do feel I’ve succeeded when awareness is raised from one level to the next. When we’ve laid down the groundwork, the curiosity is there, and the process can continue. Because raising awareness of diversity and inclusion is exactly that: an ongoing process.

Words by May Putman Cramer

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