What is diversity in the workplace anyway?

I have been confused by the theme of ‘diversity in the workplace’. Especially it’s identified as culture or gender – so I thought, why not put pen to paper and try and articulate my confusion…

The dictionary defines diversity as:

  1. The state of being diverse; variety
  2. Showing a great deal of variety, very different
  3. Including or involving people from a range of different social and ethnic backgrounds and of different genders, sexual orientations, etc.

Based on the above – does diversity in the workplace mean that the ideal is no prejudice in recruitment / employment / promotion practices?  Does it mean being inclusive and treating each job application and employee the same? Does it just mean equal opportunity? Or, does it mean you must keep count of gender, race, socio-economic background, sexual orientation, and age spread to ensure you have a proportion of each? Must there be the same diversity in each division or level of seniority?

Does this then mean that there is no equality – as each person is prejudiced by the diversity you now seek. The other question is how do you recruit or promote based on this when such questions are not allowed to be asked during recruitment or during employment?

If, by whatever diversity measure you use, you achieve your version of diversity in the workplace, then how now do you achieve diversity in leadership? If you have a diverse workplace, and leadership is recruited internally then is leadership based on merit? Or is it based on merit until there are issues with your vision of diversity? Or does it then mean that we are prejudiced in judging merit? 

In societies such as New Zealand, where there are 2nd, 3rd and 4th generation ethnicities, does recruiting based on ethnic diversity really promote diversity other than appearance?

Agreed cultural influences and values are always there on some level even with intergenerational ethnicities, however when born and brought up and educated here, do those values / influences really bring the same diversity into a workplace?

Increasing ethnic diversity in private schooling is a reality, where supposedly, there is access to the same privilege and networks. Does looking different and having an ethnic name mean you bring diverse views based on where your ethnic origins are? A 55-year-old may have only worked in one business and never travelled the world, and a 30-year-old may already have made two career decisions and had five years working in different countries around the world (or vice versa). Where is the experience most important for your business? 

Two people may look the same and have similar names where one had private schooling and a privileged upbringing, compared to the other, growing up in a lower socio-economic area and educated in public low decile schools. These individuals may look at the same situations completely different or have completely different ways of engaging with people. One way may work in a specific situation and not in another, and vice versa.

When these individuals can engage with one another, learn from each other, and complement each other is when the magic of diversity happens. This diversity is not always visible by looking at people, their names or gender. In fact, what may happen is that you hire based on a visible difference (gender, race); but you may not achieve the diversity your business needs in terms of the thinking and skills required.

In my view, a person is influenced by a combination of their culture / religion, their values, their education, their socio-economic backgrounds, their friends, their family, their experiences, their goals and aspirations, but all in different measures. The diversity a person brings can often only be experienced and not always seen.

My point is, perhaps the word diversity is a distraction from what is important in workplaces. Perhaps diversity is just being inclusive and NOT making decisions based on gender, race, socio-economic backgrounds, sexual orientation etc. Perhaps it means identifying the skills your business needs and being open to any person who can provide them. It definitely means being open to alternative ways of thinking and working. Surely that is true diversity, and it is a by-product of being truly inclusive and it is not always able to be measured, categorised or seen.

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