Diversity in the workplace has been a big topic of conversation ever since the early 1990s. Back then, research suggested that by the year 2000, 85% of the entering workforce would be female, African-American, Asian-American, Latino, or new immigrants. The idea that white males would be a minority entering the workplace was a wakeup call for corporate America.
Since then, there has been definite improvement in the area of hiring. However, it seems that once women and minorities are hired, there are informal, relatively unconscious systems in place that prevent their career advancement. If we truly value diversity, then the system must be revised so that there is equal opportunity for advancement for everyone.
What I suggest is a monumental task that many would like to believe is unnecessary. It is a huge part of the problem that those in charge often believe that there’s acceptable equality in the workplace. On the surface, it seems that things are improving, but under closer scrutiny, there are clearly still many flaws. Fixing this will require management to closely examine the formal and informal systems in place that prevent advancement by women and minorities.
Why would a company make a commitment to this self-introspection? Wouldn’t it make things worse before they got better? The answer to the second question is probably yes. The answer to the first question is it would be good for business increasing the bottom line, as well as the fact that it is the humanitarian thing to do.
The reality is that the United States is a multicultural nation that is becoming more multicultural daily. The contributions of minorities and women in the workplace are invaluable, not to mention the advantages of diversity for the global market!
Addressing the diversity issue is a three-part process. The first step is what I call Awareness. This involves individual self-reflection for each member of the workforce. There are many effective training programs available that are designed to raise awareness in individuals. If this step is missed, then taking the next two steps will be ineffective. It is necessary for individuals to develop a certain amount of empathy and understanding for the experience of being a minority in the country. With this empathy and understanding, a new motivation will develop to learn more and become in tune with the needs of female and minority workers on the job. Even those who believe that they are aware and knowledgeable will be surprised at how much they really don’t know.
The second step involves honoring, respecting, and valuing the diversity of each individual. Diversity is so much more than race and ethnicity. It involves every aspect of one’s culture and lifestyle and is learned. If a white person is raised by African-American parents, his culture will be that of an African-American. Conversely, a black child raised by Caucasian parents will have a Caucasian culture.
When differences are truly honored, respected, and valued, people are no longer concerned about who is right and who is wrong. There is a place for everything and no one is wrong. What works best in one situation may not work best in another. Everyone’s opinion is valued. Instead of shutting down when differing views are expressed, the new paradigm is to listen for the wisdom in the difference. After this, we can find the means to incorporate it into the way things are currently done for the good of all.
The final, and perhaps the most difficult, stage is to examine the systems that are already in place. One of the systems that is often blamed is that, to get along in the world of work, women and minorities need to “act” like white males. It is this acculturation that, currently, will get a person ahead. However, when companies embrace difference, they have workers who are comfortable expressing their own culture. This allows them to share the differences of their culture, which brings beneficial advantages to a workplace that become invaluable. Setting the system so minorities and women understand they must acculturate on the job is not a good thing for the worker. People want to be their authentic selves in all situations, and, unless it interferes with the quality of the products or services produced, why shouldn’t they be allowed that?
In a typical workplace, there are several of these systems in place that management is completely unaware of. It generally takes an outside consultant to come in and perform a complete analysis of what is working and what is not. Once the areas for improvement have been identified, the real work begins!
There are some companies in the United States who have been working on workplace diversity for years and are still striving for improvement. To be committed to the process is a lifetime commitment. Diversity appreciation is more of a journey than a destination.