Diversity fatigue is common even among committed diversity and inclusion practitioners and advocates.
A 2012 McKinsey report revealed that diversity sits very close to the bottom of the agenda for the majority of human resources professionals in large firms. The constant battle to get diversity and inclusion on the agenda, and then get it funded well enough to achieve tangible gains can be exhausting.
Yet, I have always been critical of many consultants’ and organizations’ approach to diversity. Why? People charged with providing diversity and inclusion strategies are not transparent about their real work.
Diversity and inclusion work is based on affirmative action. It’s about increasing underrepresented groups in organizations and eliminating barriers to inclusion that can — if talent is properly managed — contribute to organizational performance, thus the bottom line.
But literature and practice would have leaders believe that simply increasing representation will have a positive effect on business performance. No study has proven this to be true.
In fact, researchers in the Diversity Research Network conducted a study to test arguments about the business case for diversity and found few positive or negative direct effects of diversity on performance. Instead a number of different aspects of the organizational context and some group processes moderated diversity-performance relationships. This suggests a more nuanced view of the business case for diversity may be appropriate.
Those same researchers concluded that diversity professionals, industry leaders and researchers might do better to recognize that diversity is both a labor-market imperative and a societal expectation and value. Therefore, managers would do better to focus on building an organizational culture, human resource practices, and the managerial and group process skills needed to translate diversity into positive organizational, group and individual results.
Until leaders realize the benefits and limitations of diversity, they will create limited impact, and diversity fatigue will be a permanent part of organizational life.
Critics say part of the problem is that diversity’s meaning is always changing; the terms we use to describe it are in a state of flux. This is a fair criticism and worth exploring. For instance, consider unconscious bias training; it’s become the preferred yardstick to measure inclusion.
It’s established knowledge that most people who have bias are not intentionally so — hence the term unconscious bias. As SaharAndrade said in a June 2014 LinkedIn post, it’s a blind spot that requires a shift on how we think about people we perceive to be different.
This discussion about unconscious bias is simply a change in diversity language. Years ago, we provided training to reduce diversity bias. When we found this was not enough, we introduced the concept of micro-inequities, a term coined by Mary Rowe at MIT in 1973. She defined it roughly as small, hard-to-prove events that are often unintentional and frequently unrecognized by the perpetrator, occurring wherever people are perceived to be different.
The science is not new; its branding is different. Unconscious bias is becoming a tool to measure gender progress in organizations. But when applying unconscious bias, we have to be sure we do not provide members of the majority with tools to avoid dealing with, addressing and taking responsibility for their roles in institutional exclusion.
I appreciate the idea of unconscious bias, but I reject the notion that it is the answer to inclusion. Until we address exclusion — those nuances around diversity and inclusion’s relationship to performance and impact — at the organizational level, there will be little progress.