Stop Using Diversity as a Sham

Using diversity as a sham refers to the practice of using and managing diversity as a cloak for equal employment or social justice issues. In the mid-1960s, as civil rights laws and related compliance mechanisms surfaced, organizations’ leaders wanted to bring about more representation of African-Americans. They sought this desegregation not for the sake of diversity or for organizational benefit, but to make amends for past wrongs. They adopted affirmative action as a critical tool.

Paralleling this dynamic in the workplace was a similar one in communities with respect to education. As affirmative action gained acceptance and attracted opponents, advocates used the benefits of diversity that came from effective affirmative action to justify its continuance. Writing for the Supreme Court in a landmark 1978 ruling, Justice Lewis Powell upheld diversity in higher education as a “compelling interest” to justify the use of affirmative action on the basis of race.

Powell assumed that racial pluralism would give rise to behavioral variations — like thought and problem-solving approaches — that in turn would benefit the educational process. This assumption, although not always valid, allowed affirmative action practitioners and advocates to continue their focus on numbers and to act as if affirmative action and diversity were one and the same. This was the origin of diversity as a sham.

In 1980 the sham grew in breadth and depth when — as noted in a Russell Sage Foundation report, “Documenting Desegregation: Racial and Gender Segregation in Private-Sector Employment Since the Civil Rights Act” by Kevin Stainback and Donald Tomaskovic-Devey, “personnel managers rebranded themselves and their equal opportunity mission as ‘diversity management.’” One can almost see the diversity pillowcase being placed on the affirmative action/equal opportunity/social justice pillow.

This change was intended to reflect and assert the benefits of diversity as justification for affirmative action/equal opportunity/social justice initiatives in the workplace. Today, many, if not most, diversity practitioners act as if diversity and social justice interventions are synonymous and fundamentally about the numbers traditionally associated with affirmative action. This circumstance comes from more than 30 years of using diversity as a sham for social justice.

When Powell agreed with the benefits of diversity justification, he was talking about the benefits that could come from behavioral diversity accompanying demographic diversity. Social justice advocates, however, never paid much attention to securing or addressing behavioral diversity because they assumed achieving demographic pluralism would lead to behavioral diversity; also, they cared mostly about the moral imperative of achieving the numbers.

Now, as behavioral diversity surfaces plentifully in organizations, the diversity sham has locked in the focus on demographic diversity, and consequently hinders development and adoption of complementary managing diversity options to address behavioral diversity.

Stainback and Tomaskovic-Devey report that 40 years of Equal Employment Opportunity Commission data suggest the segregation of minorities and women at the bottom of corporate pyramids remains close to the 1980 level. Essentially, they conclude that underutilization of minorities and women has changed very little since 1980.

This lack of progress results from two shortcomings: organizations’ failure to develop effective vehicles to empower minorities and women as their representation in the professional and managerial workplace has grown, and also the failure to address the corresponding behavioral diversity. Both of these shortcomings can be traced to shamming and its focus on demographic pluralism and not behavioral diversity, which ironically is the source of the benefits of diversity.

Without shamming, leaders would be free to discuss demographic and behavioral diversity, and to actively develop strategies to address behavioral variations. Further, this freedom would foster the exploration of other fields — such as complex organizations, biology, zoology and politics — for diversity lessons that could be applied to workforce diversity and used to take the diversity field to the next level in its evolution.

This was the last column R. Roosevelt Thomas wrote for Diversity Executive magazine. He passed away in May. For more, visit here.