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Why isn’t it Working as Well as it Should?

By: Howard Ross, Cook Ross Inc.

As diversity professionals, we put our hearts and souls into our work.  We are deeply committed as an industry to creating a breakthrough in age-old patterns of discrimination that have plagued us for a millennium.  We have been at this now for generations and have made tremendous inroads.  There is no question that things are better than they used to be.

And yet, despite all of the diversity and inclusion trainings; all of the diversity and inclusion departments; all of the chief diversity and inclusion officers, books, and conferences; despite all the Oprah shows about diversity, there is evidence that progress has stalled in an important way.

Post-racial America?  It doesn’t appear so if we look at the racial attitudes that have surfaced in reaction to immigration, in our political campaigns, and in countless other ways.  Gender equality?  If we look at the statistics collected by the United States Office of Accounting and Budget from 2000-2010 (arguably the most active period of diversity work in our history), women’s salary relative to men’s rose from 79% to 81% and women in leadership positions rose from 40% to 41%.  At that rate, we won’t achieve parity until past 2100!

The exciting news is that the need for a constructive approach to diversity and inclusion has never been clearer, and the business case never more obvious.  Yet as many organizations begin to develop more comprehensive strategies for addressing their diversity and inclusion dynamics, they are realizing that a diversity training, Black History Month Celebration, and International Food Day in the cafeteria do not change the culture of an organization. They are realizing that simply exposing people to diversity and new cultures does not result in inclusion.

What are we doing wrong?

The diversity and inclusion “movement” has generally operated out of a “good person/bad person” paradigm.  There are the “good people,” like those of us who care about these issues and work on them, and then there are the “bad people” who our job is to find and fix.  But there is in fact every reason to believe that our current approach overlooks a key function of our thought process. Failing to address this oversight will only contribute to the “stuckness” we are experiencing. Scientific evidence shows that when we approach people with a mind to “fix” them, the brain triggers a threat response that makes them more likely to dig in their heels, or head for the hills!

I do not mean to be discouraging, and I haven’t lost even an ounce of my passion and hope for the future.  Nevertheless, we as an industry have to look beyond the tendency to simply blame others for not changing and ask ourselves whether we are approaching this issue correctly. If not, we may be missing the boat if we are going to take our work to the next level.  After all, isn’t the definition of insanity doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results?

It is time for us as diversity and inclusion practitioners to realize that if we are going to move our work to the next level, we are going to have to start by looking at ourselves.  We are going to have to understand that we are as susceptible to biases as everybody else.  The content of our biases may be different, but the reality of them is the same.  We are going to have to understand how automatic the mind is and that we can no more force somebody to embrace diversity than we can force them to go on a diet if they don’t want to.

And that is where the hope for the future lies.  In our understanding that we are not that much different than the very people we have been trying to “fix.”  That by learning how our minds work, we can understand better how theirs do, and then meet them not on the battlefield, but in a different context.  And that when we can approach each others with greater understanding and compassion—even those who believe things that we don’t—we have a far greater chance of being successful in our quest for inclusion.

When we are willing to do that work with and on ourselves, our chance of creating true inclusion becomes a greater possibility.  And it is a possibility worth pursuing with every fiber of our being.  As the great Sufi poet Rumi wrote:

“Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing there is a field.  I will meet you there.”

I look forward to meeting you at the Multicultural Forum Conference, and to creating this new paradigm for diversity and inclusion—true inclusion—together.

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