What does diversity and inclusion mean to you?
I attended a half-day conference at The George Washington University last week on diversity and inclusion in the workplace sponsored by one of the big consulting firms in the US. My adviser, Dr. Maria Cseh, co-led one of the breakout sessions entitled Leading and Engaging Our People. I have four short reflections I want to share – two positive, two more critical – and one concluding thought. Then, I’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic as well.
Firstly, there were artists depicting what happened in the sessions on large pieces of paper. These visual representations were remarkable and helped think about different ways of making meaning of the talks. Also, these visual depictions allowed us to get the highlights of sessions we weren’t able to attend.
Secondly, I thoroughly enjoyed our breakout session on Leading and Engaging Our People. In small groups, we did two activities. The first activity asked us to “come up with a phrase that describes what diversity and inclusion means to you.” We shared in our small groups and it was interesting to hear the various thoughts. In the minute we had to think of our answers, I came up with this: to me, diversity and inclusion mean radical acceptance, respect, and compassion for every person. How one defines “radical” is up for debate but I wanted to get across a certain depth and even counter-cultural degree of acceptance, respect, and compassion. The second activity involved cards with pictures on them. The pictures seemed random, disconnected, and even strange. We were asked to pick a picture and explain how it describes leadership. I picked one of some cyclists and talked about drafting off one another. Overall, the breakout session was great.
Now on to a couple points of criticism.
For a talk on on diversity and inclusion, I was shocked at how homogenous the group seemed to be. While the types of diversity are unlimited, at least two kinds of diversity appeared eerily absent: Socioeconomic status (SES) and diversity of thought. Obviously I cannot know for sure that either one of these things was in fact absent as they are mostly invisible, but it didn’t take long for me to feel that these types of diversity were underrepresented. Everyone looked somewhat the same in their suits and nice shoes, and everyone talked in similar ways as if with the same underlining philosophy.
I must admit that because of the way my life has unfolded, my brushes with corporate America have been brief. I wasn’t prepared for what is my second criticism: the implicit treating of people (especially with regards to diversity and inclusion) as a means to an end. Treating others as an end in themselves and not a means to an end is the foundation of Kant’s ethics. While I’ve known these ideas in theory, I was really confronted with them at this conference. At the panel discussion, several of the panelists alluded to the importance of convincing business leaders that diversity is important for business outcomes. I was offended. I know we live in a capitalist society but that doesn’t mean we need to put a dollar sign on someone’s diversity as the only way to get them included in the workplace. I’m not advocating that businesses take on people simply as “diversity hires,” I just want to think about how we treat people.
My concluding thought is this: Let’s have a conversation about how we treat people in organizations. How do we view people that we live and work with? Do we see them as a means to our happiness, profit, or success? How does this affect the quality of our relationships and business as a whole? My hope is to grow to treat all people as beautiful, wonderful, uniquely talented, and valuable, interconnected with one another and the natural world in dynamic relationship.