In the past week, since reflecting on this blog about whether the departure of UBC President Arvind Gupta was due in part to his losing the “masculinity contest” among the institution’s leadership, I have witnessed the “body count” version of diversity used to defend an individual’s or group’s diversity credentials.*
It is true that the numbers of women, minorities, and other underrepresented groups in an organization and among its leadership are important. But the path to those numbers, and their sustainability, is even more important.
Body count diversityemphasizes optics over process. It is usually possible to find people of the right color, sex, or other identities to make the numbers look good. But body count diversity stops there and treats those individuals as window dressing, mouthpieces, or good soldiers willing to go along in exchange for synthetic inclusion. The “fix the women” version of gender diversity efforts reflects this, training women to act like men in order to fit into existing organizational structures and cultures that are defined by men and often reward hubris and bullying. One of the lessons in Jeff Pfeffer’s book, Power: Why Some People Have It—and Others Don’t, which I’ve assigned to my MBA students over the years, is to beware of the promotion that involves skipping a rank or skirting normal qualifications: The person(s) giving it to you probably has an agenda that is not about empowering you, but about empowering themselves. Body count diversity is unpalatable for many would-be bodies and is difficult to sustain over time, fueling cynicism about diversity and its consequences.
Inclusive diversityis diversity borne of organizational cultures that sincerely value the dignity, uniqueness, and right to self-actualization and expression of each individual. Rather than requiring individuals to cover their unique identities to fit in, it recognizes that people’s social identities shape their experiences and perspectives on the world without requiring them be so shaped in order to play stereotypical roles. “Value the feminine” gender diversity efforts ironically end up expecting women to act “feminine” and backfires against them when they do not. Inclusive diversity is diversity that emerges from people thriving over the course of their careers within an organization because it has supported and encouraged them to speak the truth as they see it, not as someone else does. It is an outcome of organizational cultures that build honesty, transparency, inclusion, and accountability into their practices. Like happiness, diversity is elusive if you try to achieve it directly, but rather comes from living with integrity, and being able to be true to oneself and what gives meaning.
We need to move beyond body count diversity to meaningful diversity, defined by norms of respect and inclusion that promote true forms of equal opportunity. We need to turn our lenses inward to examine the social norms and practices that make up the everyday life in our organizations and their governance. As Fiona Macfarlane, Managing Partner and Chief Inclusiveness Officer at Ernst and Young, so aptly puts it: It’s time to desalinate the water so that fish other than salmon can swim in it.
* I have learned a lot of other things that validate some of the concerns expressed in last week’s post, but that is not for discussing here and now.