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Even if you diversify your workforce, unless you help remove the extra obstacles and setbacks that cause disadvantage in the first place, employees can never fully come to the table.
A complaint-free workplace doesn’t mean a problem-free workplace. Many of the barriers that cause disadvantage operate discreetly. Identifying and naming them is half the battle; it’s the first step to solving the problem.
Diversity, equity, and inclusion are three separate concepts with their own nuance. It’s vital to understand how these are distinctly different from one another so that we are able address each one effectively.
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So, you’ve steadily been building awareness across the organization and gaining momentum with DEI at work. You may have organized an inclusion committee or even various employee resource groups, conducted DEI trainings to build a common understanding, and integrated equity as a core part of a revised mission statement. But for some reason, your progress hits a wall. No matter how many different ways you try, you continually find yourself at a dead end and it’s hard to put your finger on what exactly is hindering your progress. As you would do in any other facet of your company if you kept falling short, the first priority is to identify the real problem.
And that’s exactly what the missing key to your DEI strategy is, not only constructing a positive workplace but deconstructing the barriers that are holding your company back from full equity. Consider if you had a flat tire; you can spend all your energy pumping air into it but if you don’t realize there’s actually a hole in it and don’t patch it up, you’re wasting energy and your tire will remain flat.
Often the “holes” related to DEI are the workplace disadvantages, unintentionally placed or not, that certain groups of people face, and these issues of disadvantage can show up in any area of your business, from company policy to interpersonal interactions to organizational structures and operations. Even if you diversify your workforce, employees can never fully come to the table unless you help remove the extra obstacles and setbacks that a diverse staff will encounter. Use a framework that helps you identify these issues of disadvantage, then work to remove them.
What Incomplete DEI Work Looks Like
DEI strategy isn’t like a puzzle where you can leave out a few pieces and still understand what the picture is; it’s a machine and you need every cog for it to function - diversity, equity, and inclusion. Leave one out and the whole strategy falls apart. It’s vital that in this moment we separate the acronym to understand each piece and how they are distinctly different.
Diverse but not inclusive
Company A has launched a very successful diversity hiring project but has yet to examine their internal processes. This company boasts its diversity but employees of color report experiencing high rates of microaggressions, exclusion from promotion opportunities, and a lack of support from leadership towards DEI initiatives.
Company B has a gender diversity initiative that has allowed women to thrive as the majority of its employee base. Represented from bottom rung all the way up to leadership, women are empowered with a strong say in the direction of the company. However, most of the women employees are white, cisgender, straight, and able-bodied; additionally, there are no trans or nonbinary employees. While women’s needs have been considered and feedback has been acted upon to transform policies, the gender diversity initiative failed to seek out women of marginalized identities and experiences, so it disproportionately privileges a certain group of women.
Diverse but not equitable
Company C employs a high number of employees with disabilities but the jobs that encourage diverse personnel are often low-paying and low-authority. Despite having representation from the disability community and investments in workplace belonging and inclusion, there are no senior positions held by folks with disabilities. Upon further examination, it's uncovered that the promotion process at this company is not founded on set criteria and is up to the personal discretion of one's manager.
While these different factors of diversity, equity, and inclusion largely interact with and affect each other, they are not synonymous and can’t replace each other. Each aspect needs to be equally prioritized and handled with different approaches because leaving out one not only perpetuates old issues but may create new ones.
Silent But Deadly Barriers
One reason it can be difficult to eliminate barriers is simply the difficulty in identifying them, brought on by a general hesitancy and taboo nature of talking about disadvantages or problems at work. Some employees might say that if we want this to go away, we should stop bringing it up. But we know ignoring a problem rarely, if ever, solves it in any facet of life. If your car alerted you it had low tire pressure, you would know to take it in soon to fix it. Even though the alert might seem like an inconvenience at the moment, it’s better than if you didn’t know and continued driving on it, making the situation progressively worse and even potentially leading to a popped tire - a much bigger hassle down the line.
Moreover the hesitance or downright aversion to bringing up issues breeds what philosopher Paulo Frier calls a culture of silence. This is a group behavior in which even those who are most harmed by issues do not have the confidence that real change will come of speaking up and those who aren’t affected remain unaware with the ultimate result being that the problem remains. Silence doesn’t indicate the absence of a problem or the presence of equity; in fact, it’s likely a sign there is something below the surface that needs addressing.
So it’s no exaggeration when identifying what disadvantages and barriers exist at work is half the battle. Naming the problem matters. It’s the first step in solving it and to solve any problem, we have to see it and seek to understand it.
What to Look For, Where to Look
As we move from ignoring or avoiding to actively looking for the issues of disadvantage, we must seek to understand what we’re looking at.
Different Systems of Disadvantage
If we look at the identities each of our employees brings into the workplace and see how each identity encounters systems of disadvantage in society and in our workplace, we can start to deconstruct these big systems to see how they affect people’s personal lives - taking a people-centered approach. When we name these issues, we not only validate employees’ lived experiences but we take the first step towards figuring out how to dismantle these issues.
Consider some of these identities and what systems of disadvantage they might encounter.
Where In Your Workplace
These systems of disadvantage take many forms, from the interpersonal level to the structural level. Look at each area of the business to identify what systems of disadvantage pervade - people, operations, infrastructure, and culture.
When we think about powerful movements, we notice how they named the problem within their titles. Feminism is called so because, while advocating for equity of different genders, it’s specifically advocating for women’s equal rights because women were historically oppressed. Antiracism is so called because, as Dr. Ibram X. Kendi repeats, it’s not enough not to be racist; we need to actively work against the system of disadvantage that is racism.
The name of the framework that identifies and targets systems of disadvantages is called anti-oppression, and it’s the key to make your DEI strategy work for you.