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What Does It Mean To Be a Truly Diverse Company?

By Nithin Coca
diverse company

Diversity is a big topic these days. Whether it is the growing awareness of the stunning lack of diversity in the tech industry, the controversy over the all-white Oscar acting nominations, or how few women hold high-level positions either in business or in government, there is a realization that if we want to create a true, merit-oriented, progressive and inclusive society, we have to ensure that diversity is at the center of nearly every decision.

For companies, it is increasingly becoming a financial question as well. The backlash that companies face for weak policies with regards to diversity -- alongside the mounting evidence that diversity can actually increase profits and result in better organizational decision-making -- is making it clearer, day-by-day, that the companies that will succeed in the 21st century will be the ones that take diversity seriously.

"Becoming an inclusive organization requires a commitment to long-term organizational culture change," said Judith Y. Weisinger, a PhD and associate professor of business, formerly of Mills College in Oakland. "This not only requires effective leadership for diversity and inclusion, but also involves skills-building such as teamwork, communication, leadership development, inclusive decision-making."

Here's the problem: While there is widespread recognition that we need diversity, there is far less agreement on what being diverse actually means. For far too many organizations, it means tokenism: A person of color, or a female, is put in a position as a symbol, but the organizational culture remains the same. This is something we see in advertising all the time, where images of one person of each major ethnic group smiling together is seem as a symbol of diversity.

"It is very difficult to judge, from an external perspective, how well an organization is actually living up to its diversity values and promises," Weisinger told 3p.

This can manifest itself in many ways. For example, we recently saw at Apple that official diversity statistics initially show a relatively high number of African-American and Hispanic employees -- until you realize that this includes low-wage retail positions. Remove those and look at only the tech and executive positions, and Apple becomes overwhelmingly white and male. Instead of tackling this head-on, Apple refused to accept a proposal to speed up diversifying its board – showing a clear lack of commitment to becoming a truly diverse company.

It is tokenism to hire minorities and women for any position just to showcase diversity. It is inclusive diversity to ensure they have the same opportunities to hold leadership positions as any other employees.

"Ultimately, I believe that cultural change around diversity and inclusion is a relational process," Weisinger said. "That is, fostering an environment where diverse employees of all sorts can effectively interact and learn from each other in an effort to enhance the organization and develop themselves is the way to make an organization truly inclusive."

What we need is a move beyond the buzzword diversity, toward creating truly inclusive companies that are not only welcoming to underrepresented minorities and women, but also focus on working within the communities in which they do business. Without a commitment to education and better opportunities for people at the earliest stages of life, there can not be more diversity at the top.

Thus, diversity is more than just hiring the right people. It's changing your culture, working with communities, and creating an inclusive space both within and outside your organization. And it's not impossible – some companies have done it. Home Depot is one example. African-American female programmer Erica Joy cited the company as a rare example of inclusivity in her journey through mostly white, male-dominated tech workspaces.

Unfortunately for Joy, Home Depot was an exception, not the norm, as, especially in the tech industry, she found herself surrounded by white males to whom she had to adapt her behavior to fit in. She recounts the toll this took on her mental health and overall happiness in a moving and eye-opening editorial piece.

"I am not my industry or its stereotypes. I am a black woman who happens to work in the tech industry. I don’t need to change to fit within my industry. My industry needs to change to make everyone feel included and accepted," Joy wrote.

It's time for diversity to move beyond its current role as a marketing buzzword, and into the space of real commitments for a much wider range of companies. The companies that make these steps will thrive, while the ones that don't will find themselves subject to more consumer criticism, and, in the end, fewer business opportunities. Companies can't hide behind token diversity anymore. True inclusion and long-term thinking are the only ways forward.

Image credit: Alex Tan/Death to the Stock Photo

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Nithin Coca is a freelance journalist who focuses on environmental, social, and economic issues around the world, with specific expertise in Southeast Asia.

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