For Diversity & Inclusion, Don’t Treat All Differences The Same

by cv harquail on November 5, 2010

I’m troubled by a trend in the conversation about ‘diversity and inclusion’ in organizations.

Some Diversity & Inclusion (D&I) consultants and conversations are beginning to treat all forms of difference as equally important.

For example, differences in the gender, orientation, physical ability, or ethnicity of organization members are presented along with differences in cognitive styles, behavioral preferences, and value hierarchies, as if there were no significant, qualitative differences between these types of diversity. However, these types of ‘diversity’ are different in important ways.

Treating all types of difference as though they were the same is damaging both to individual organizational members and to an organization’s progress towards inclusivity.

We need to understand and assert the important differences between these types of ‘diversity’ and recognize that one type of difference — identity-based difference – has a central and enduring place in the diversity conversation.

Different Types of Diversity

Depending on whom you read or talk to, there are different ways to categorize types of diversity. Consider these four loosely defined, different types of diversity:

  • “Identity” / Social Category/ Demographic Diversity: related to a person’s social-physical categories, like race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, physical ability. Refers to who we are, in our bodies.
  • “Value” Diversity: related to belief systems, value preferences, assumptions about what is better or right, beliefs about how the world is organized. Refers to what we believe
  • “Cognitive” / Informational Diversity: related to what you know and how you know it, including work experience, learning styles, intelligence, differences in mental processes of perception, judgment, categorization, and so on. Refers to what we know.
  • Behavioral” Diversity: related to personality styles, action orientation, how we interact with others, working style. Refers to how we act.
  • These four types of diversity are related, in that a person’s social category will influence his or her life experience, and thus influence his or her values, cognitive preferences, and behavioral preferences. These types are not independent, and at the same time the relationships between them are not hard-wired.

    Key Ways That These Types of Diversity are Different

    There are qualitative differences in the reasons why identity-based differences affect how a person is included in or excluded from full participation in an organization, and why value, cognitive and behavioral differences affect how a person is included in or excluded from an organization.

  • Identity/Social Category-based differences have a long history of being socially-legitimated but fundamentally illegitimate reasons for discriminating against people.
  • People in certain social identities have experienced explicit and implicit discrimination, with legal and procedural institutionalization of that discrimination.
    They have been denied basic human rights, and they have experienced hatred, dismissal, subordination, threats, economic sanctions, and fear. They still experience significant prejudice from members of other social categories.
  • Identity based differences are often immediately visible, obvious, and “objective”.
    Thus, being discriminated against is hard (if not impossible) for the individual to avoid or to manage alone. Identity based differences cannot be changed by individuals themselves.
  • Identity based differences have virtually no direct link to organizational and business strategy.
    By virtue of their physical category, no one is better at or worse at organizational processes. (Lesbians are not automatically better at graphic design than straight men.)
  • Why is treating all types of difference the same a bad “Diversity” practice?

    1. Treating all difference as the same ignores important categorical differences in the history of exclusion, rationalization of exclusion, arguments against exclusion, and benefits of inclusion of people with these different types of difference.

    The perceived and actual causes, effects and solutions for discrimination against individuals with social identity-based differences are categorically different from those involved in the limited inclusion of people with cognitive, behavioral or value diversity.

    Moreover, there are important differences in the causes, effects and solutions for discrimination across different forms of identity-based discrimination. For example, practices of discrimination and inclusion of people of color (i.e., anti-racism) are different from those of LGBTQ individuals (e.g., anti-heteronormativity).

    2. Treating all types of difference as the same insures that we’ll make only partial progress towards equal inclusion of all organization members.

    Treating all types of differences as the same means that they all have the same causes, and the same solutions. Which of course they don’t. The programs and learning that end racist practices in an organization are not the same as what would increase the inclusion of people with uncommon work habits, or people who value concreteness over ambiguity. People have been taught to hate, resent, fear, loathe, and dismiss as less valuable persons from different identity categories. People don’t apply the same level of animus towards individuals with unconventional work practices or less common personality styles.

    We can’t change racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. with the same kinds of understanding, team building and training that we use to make way for action learners in an organization filled with auditory learners.

    If we pursue a path where we teach about diversity and treat identity-based, cognitive, behavioral and value differences as “the same”, we will continue to hurt those who experience identity based discrimination, because we will not address their more serious issues.

    3. Equating these different categories of differences trivializes the real costs of the discrimination faced by individuals with social category based differences.

    A person of color has faced lifelong exclusion based on racism in a world where whites are in power. A woman has faced lifelong sexism, a person who uses a wheelchair has faced a long history of dis-ableism. As members of these social groups, they have experienced not only categorical discrimination in organizations, but also real personal pain and significant personal costs.

    Why do some D & I advocates treat all types of differences as the same?

    Some D & I advocates address all types of differences as the same, because they are trying to be comprehensive and include every kind of difference that might matter to an organization’s healthy flourishing. While it is true that inclusion of other types of difference, beyond identity based difference, may well be important to an organization’s improvement, it is important not to overlook critical differences too.

    Also, some D & I advocates treat non-identity based differences as equally important, because teaching people to understand exclusion and inclusion on these other types of difference is a relatively “safe” and non-confrontational approach to teaching about ‘diversity’. If you’re just talking about personality differences, no one gets really hurt.

    People who are members of social categories that give them social power and privilege often find it difficult to understand what it’s like not to be included, not to be at the center or the top. However, if they experience less-than-full inclusion due to one or another personal differences in cognition, behavior, and values, they get a peek at what it might be like to actually be the discriminated against and/ or not fully included.

    But make no mistake:

    The marginality someone might feel being an ISFP in an ENTJ corporate culture is nothing like being an African-American women in an all white male organization.

    These are not comparable experiences, and they are not comparable bases for exclusion or inclusion.

    Is it ever helpful to treat all forms of difference as though they were equivalent?

    There are two legitimate reasons to “bundle” qualitatively different types of diversity into one package.

    1. The first reason is related to Intersectionality – the idea that we are never just one identity category , but instead are members of many categories at the same time.

    Intersectionality helps us understand that women of color face challenges related to racism, to sexism, and to the ways that sexism and racism play into each other. Similarly, white lesbians will face challenges sexism and heterosexism that white, cisgendered women will not experience, while women in both identity groups with experience some race-based privilege.

    We can’t change racism without also attacking sexism and other forms of identity-based discrimination at the same time, because no one is only one identity.  A piecemeal approach doesn’t work; a holistic approach is necessary.

    2. The second legitimate reason to ‘bundle’ qualitatively different types of diversity is to make the point that organizations need to revise their approach to differences as a concept.

    For example, organizations need to understand that social coherence, “fit” and alignment can turn into rigidity, and that organization members individually and collectively need ways to assess when and how differences matter, and which differences matter.

    Treating all types of differences as the same will not get all types of people to equal levels of inclusion in an organization.

    Differences based in social identity, and discrimination based on sex, race, ability, and orientation, should be understood as distinct from differences based on cognition, behavior and values.

    • Identity-based discrimination is fundamentally illegitimate, business irrelevant, immoral, and unethical.
    • Efforts to increase the inclusion of people with cognitive, behavioral and value diversity will not eliminate identity-based discrimination.

    Therefore, Diversity & Inclusion advocates should discriminate among types of difference, and keep identity-based difference as the core focus of diversity programs.

    See also:
    Work-Life Solutions and Important Differences: Let’s get inclusive
    A Psychological Benefit of a “Black” Organization?

    Image:  The Color Wheel AttributionNoncommercialShare Alike Some rights reserved by Great Beyond
    Sorted By Color AttributionNo Derivative Works Some rights reserved by Mr. T in DC
    Smarties vs M&Ms AttributionNoncommercialShare Alike Some rights reserved by fritish


    joe gerstandt November 11, 2010 at 11:23 pm

    Great post CV. I do not think that all difference is the same, however my personal approach is based on shining light on the dynamics of difference before we dig into any specific kind of difference…so a lot of my basic level conversations are simply about difference and the inclusion of difference.

    I think there are some basic characteristics of difference (it is generative, it brings tension, it is relational, etc.) and my perspective is that we have to have some appreciation for that stuff before we can really have a functional dialogue about a specific kind of difference. And while I think there is a great deal of difference between kinds of difference, I do not think any real value comes from trying to figure out which kind of difference is the most important or the most painful, etc. The oppression olympics takes all of our eyes off the prize. I want to help people find the universal truths related to this set of topics, so that everyone sees how and why it is relevant to them

    cv harquail November 14, 2010 at 6:22 pm

    I probably should have mentioned ‘oppression olympics’ to get that canard off the table from the start.

    While I appreciate the point that there is little value arguing– among actually oppressed groups — whether or not one group is more oppressed, it is still important to make a distinction between groups that are genuinely oppressed across a society, and those that may be less central/more marginal in a given organization. Key to this distinction is recognizing which oppressions have the power of culture and the history of hate behind them, and which do not.

    The question is not whether sexism is worse than racism is worse than heteronormativity. The question is, is racism different and importantly more difficult to experience and to remedy than an organizational preference/marginalization of a cognitive difference like learning style?

    There may well be universal truths that encompass all manner of exclusions, both historic & structural and local & preferential. I’d be interested to learn more about how different d&i advocates make sure that the conversation everybody can have about their personal experience of difference doesn’t inadvertently silence and exclude the experiences of the truly oppressed, thus reinforcing the very marginalization that d&I programs are supposed to help us resolve.

    Maybe the answer/resolution is in the details of how you unfold you work?

    Comments on this entry are closed.