Last week, Laurel and I attended a Diversity & Inclusion training put on by White Men as Full Diversity Partners. Yep, you read that right. Their basic raison d’etre is to create more diverse and inclusive workplaces, and to do so by including a group that is frequently excluded from the conversation (by their own choice, and/or by the choosing of others) - white men (my words, not theirs).
There is really SO much more to say about this. But for now, we wanted to share some of our takeaways from the training. If you spend a lot of time thinking about and working on D&I, most of these may feel a little obvious, but I believe regular reminders are helpful and needed. If you don’t spend a lot of time on D&I, we encourage you to consider these learnings, and reach out if you have questions or comments to share!
Why Diversity? Each organization, or person, has to determine why they are pushing forward with diversity and inclusion. The “why” must be clear and compelling or D&I will always be the first item to fall to the bottom of the priority list when time or money is short. I wish we could tell you that we have a stock answer about why you should focus on D&I that will get your organization fired up and moving in the right direction, but we don’t. The reality is that our organizations are as complex as the people who inhabit them. But you know your company best, and we believe that you are the best person to determine the why for you.
Embrace the mess. If there was one lesson to hear and re-hear, it is that D&I work is not easy and can be pretty messy. We are talking about changing a system and culture that dates back to America’s founding fathers and before! And there is no one-size-fits-all strategy to “fix it.” In fact, our need to “fix it” is a direct result of the dominant culture. Each company culture is different, and has different needs and goals when it comes to talent and people. Force fitting a cookie cutter solution is a total waste of time and money. So instead, embrace the messiness that comes with tackling a complex challenge, and engage a broad range of people in the solutions. The mess is worth it.
See the water you’re swimming in. It’s hard to know the water you’re swimming in when you’re the fish. When you ask most white men to describe “white male culture” they have a hard time. That’s because it’s the culture they have been raised in from birth. This is relevant because it also happens to be the dominant culture in US business. Just think about it, culture is set by leaders. And for the last 200-plus years, businesses and government have largely been run by white men. Only recently have we started to see significant shifts in the numbers but the water still feels pretty white, and pretty masculine. If you bristle at this idea, we ask you to investigate it. Like above, where I mentioned the proclivity to “just fix it”, or to favor individualism: where does that come from? Once you start to see the water, it’s hard to unsee it. Raising your awareness alone can create great strides toward progress.
Diversity is the numbers, inclusion is the behavior. Despite all your efforts to increase the number of diverse hires, your work will be for naught if you don’t also make sure the environment they’re hired into is inclusive. It takes a lot of effort to walk around all day pretending to be something just so you fit in. Creating environments that celebrate difference, and leverage the unique ways in which it can strengthen your business and community is the name of the game.
Leadership must be at the table. The powers that be at your organization need to be at the table for these conversations for true progress to take place. I really believe this. And I believe it about every component of a culture. If the leader or leaders in your organization are not bought in and willing to roll up their sleeves and do the work too, you will see no sustainable progress. And while I love a challenge, I don’t love banging my head against a brick wall. If your leaders aren’t all in, you have to find out what will bring them to the table and keep them there.
Risk being human. You can’t create a truly inclusive environment without the courage to say the wrong thing, and a community who won’t blast you for missteps. While we were at the training, we observed the big shifts in understanding and ownership came during the open and vulnerable conversations. When we just focus on the data, and ignore the human experience, we can miss out on the opportunity to build critical connections. Don’t get me wrong, there is some risk to this. The risk that you will be misunderstood, your words will be misinterpreted, or that you will sound ignorant. But if we keep running from the risk, we will find ourselves in this exact spot 50 years from now. So we must have the courage to mess up, and also allow for others to do the same. And we must be willing to say “I’m sorry. I’ll do better next time.” if we have any hope of creating the kinds of cultures that are inclusive of everyone.
Be an accountable human. You have a responsibility to educate yourself. One of the major complaints I hear from people of color and some women is that they are constantly asked to educate white people about the inequities that exist in our culture. It’s much easier to just ask the woman next to you what it’s like to be a woman in your workplace, but whether you know it or not, there is risk to answering that honestly. Before you ask the person of color, or gal next to you what it’s like, try googling it. There is a ton of excellent literature, research, and opinion pieces on the internet about the challenges of being outside of a dominant group at work, and the impact it has over time. Seriously, try googling “what struggles do many women face at work?” Replace ‘woman’ with any minority group too.
So there you have it. Seven simple, yet difficult to live learnings. I would remiss to leave this post without calling out the obvious. Laurel and I are two white women. Raised by white fathers, and white mothers, and we have been swimming in the same water as the rest of corporate America since birth. But we know that this work is so worth the discomfort, both in terms of the actual tangible business results, and the genuine understanding and human connection that can occur in its wake.