If you follow the news even a little, you may have noticed how diversity, equity, and inclusion keep popping into the conversation.
Sometimes, that’s in a positive way, as when NASA announced the naming of two people who will help lead the space agency’s diversity efforts.
But DEI has also faced an increasing amount of backlash from critics who question the necessity for and the effectiveness of DEI initiatives, regardless of whether those initiatives are happening in business, education, or government.
Or maybe even in the space program.
Why this strong and adverse reaction to something that should be seen in a favorable light?
Any number of reasons could be involved, but let’s take a look at just one –– a lack of understanding about what DEI is, what it accomplishes, and what it means to each person within an organization.
In many cases, when people hear about anything related to DEI, they immediately think about race. Possibly, they also think about gender, and efforts by women to shatter the glass ceiling. Finally, they may also think that any time a business or other organization makes a serious attempt to improve the conditions for one group of people, then some other group is going to suffer and will need to give something up.
This line of thinking represents a limited view of DEI.
DEI Represents a Wide Range of People
Let’s start with the race question. It is true that race and the effects of systemic racism are at the center of DEI discussions. No argument there. But this is with justification. If we are unable to fix problems related to race, then we won’t be able to fix anything else.
That doesn’t mean, though, that race stands alone as emblematic of DEI, or that race and gender hold that position together. In reality, DEI also includes people with varying degrees of physical ability, neuro-divergence, illness, sexual preference, economics, trauma, and more.
Also, the idea that DEI somehow involves taking from one person or group to give to another is incorrect. This is not a zero-sum game, with the winners and the losers simply switching places in an organization’s hierarchy. In fact, DEI efforts help improve conditions for everyone, making for a more inclusive, more welcoming work environment overall. And for businesses, they even improve the bottom line.
This was something McKinsey & Company was able to show in a study in 2020. “For diverse companies, the likelihood of out-performing industry peers on profitability has increased over time,” the study said, “while the penalties are getting steeper for those lacking diversity.”
Many supply chain organizations certainly understand this. A 2022 study by Gartner and the Association for Supply Chain Management found that, despite the pandemic, supply chain organizations were staying committed to DEI, and reaping rewards as a result.
Everyone Has a DEI Story
Unfortunately, as all those news reports testify, this positive feeling about DEI is not universal. Once again, that brings us back to those misunderstandings about DEI and the failure to realize the positivity that DEI can bring to our day-to-day interactions with each other.
All of us –– no matter our backgrounds, race, gender, or other identifying characteristics –– have felt exploited, rejected, or completely invisible at some time in our lives. Some people, of course, are fortunate enough that those experiences haven’t happened routinely. For others, they are common. This is because of historical systems of oppression in employment, healthcare, and social structures.
One thing DEI does is encourage all of us to understand and empathize with others and what they have been through. By doing so, we can recognize that everyone is entitled to humanity and dignity. And they will come to recognize the same thing about us.
One criticism of DEI is that the real, underlying goal of this approach is to make white people feel guilty or to imply that they don’t have significant problems. This is not so. DEI efforts certainly recognize that white people have faced hardship and burdens. It’s just that skin color was not an underlying reason for those hardships and burdens.
In fact, I always say that everyone has a DEI story, even if you aren’t a member of a historically marginalized group. Why is that? Because the very heart of diversity involves how things differ, and we all know that people differ in many ways. All of us fit in, or don’t, some place, and this is why each of us has a DEI story.
Still, how does this make a difference to how businesses operate successfully? DEI, when done right, encourages a more inclusive, welcoming workplace where everyone feels they can contribute. In such an environment, employees feel more engaged. They look forward to coming to work, and absenteeism becomes less of a problem.
Employee turnover, which can be costly for businesses, also goes down, because employees feel they are valued, and can make a difference where they are.
A dedication to DEI can make a significant improvement to any organization, whether the goal is increased profitability, an improved company culture –– or even a return trip to the moon.
Dr. Nika White is president and CEO of Nika White Consulting.
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