These are the new faces of diversity
It’s been nearly two years since corporate America finally looked institutional racism in the eye and said, “it’s time we do better.” Since then, organizations of all shapes and sizes have embarked on a journey to dismantle the systems, processes, biases, and unwritten policies that have unintentionally held back people of color. As a black woman who’s committed her life to champion diversity, I’ve never been more thrilled than I have been these past few years. Conversations about race in the workplace are finally happening. I find myself busier than ever conducting organizational culture assessments, helping leaders discover cultural blind spots, and executing strategies to transform toxic and exclusive workplaces into positive, inclusive, and engaging places where employees of all colors and creeds are able to thrive.
Our cultural reckoning is still relatively new, but enough time has passed for us to learn whether and how our work is making an impact. In speaking with clients about their progress, I’ve often heard some variation of the phrase, “we diversified our talent.” That’s positive, to be sure, but it provokes a follow-up question from me, “what does that mean for your workplace?” For the vast majority of organizations, I’ve learned that means they’ve hired more BIPOC employees. Beyond that, most have implemented ongoing strategies to address systemic racism. Again, these are wonderful things, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that something was lacking. If our sole focus is on race-based inequity, then are we truly creating diverse, inclusive work environments? What about all the other differentiators (age, religion, sexual orientation, physical/mental ability) that lead to inequity? How do we create inclusion across those lines?
Don’t get me wrong; systemic racism has left a nasty mark on America on its institutions. The implications of racism in the workplace are with us even today. As we enter 2022, you can still count all the Black CEOs of Fortune 500 companies on one hand. At the middle management level, black and brown employees have also struggled to find their seats at the table. I’m thankful that things are changing, yet I’m well aware that we still have a long way to go.
But, as we walk the long, hard path toward workplace equity, we can’t ignore everyone else who’s had to suffer the effects of systemic inequities—especially those whose invisible diversity has held them back. We’re all different in so many ways, and we tend to focus leveling on the field between those who are visibly different from one another (i.e., race). But it’s often the differences we can’t see that keep individuals from participating at the same level as others.
A few months ago, I told my LinkedIn network that I had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Within hours, people from every conceivable demographic shared their experiences of working with mental illness. This led me to study up neurodiversity—a view that treats mental illness less like a disorder and more like a diversity of mental capabilities. Neurodivergent persons aren’t so much disabled as they are differently-abled. They may need accommodations at work, but they also bring strengths to the workplace that people without their challenges don’t necessarily have.
Before my mental illness diagnosis, I quietly suffered from an auto-immune disease. One year, it was so bad that I had to call out sick more than normal. Even though I managed to exceed every one of my yearly goals, my manager still commented on my attendance during a performance evaluation. Soon after, a promotion opportunity came up. Though I was clearly the top performer, another colleague was awarded the promotion. Why? She never called out sick. Therefore, she was more “reliable.” I share this, not because I’m bitter, but because it’s a clear illustration of what I’m talking about. Unseen differences create challenges that give the appearance of poor performance when the opposite is the case. Failing to account for these differences doesn’t just contribute to inequity; it gives employers a false view of the talent in their organization.
As we head into 2022, I urge organizations to stay committed to rectifying systemic racism in the workplace. This will also continue to my life’s work. But I also encourage us to think about what we mean when we say our goal is to create a more diverse and inclusive workplace. Diversity is not just a matter of what we can see. It is about what we can’t see—what we can’t hear, feel, or touch. It’s about our different experiences. It’s about race. It’s about age. It’s about faith. It’s about sexual orientation. It’s about everything that makes us different—visible and invisible. Different perspectives. Different backgrounds. Different abilities.
In 2022, let’s keep pursuing diversity, but let’s not forget the invisibly diverse. Let’s focus on diversabilities so that we can accommodate and capitalize on the strengths everyone brings to the workplace.