What do we mean by diversity? What is the purpose behind the growing diversity industry? Why do we want diversity anyway?
Perhaps we are simply caught up in the latest trend, and if we say the word diversity often enough then it will become true. Perhaps we keep saying “diversity” in the hope that our good intentions will result in outcomes, but what outcomes are we looking for?
The benefits of diversity
There is increasing evidence that diversity contributes substantially to the bottom line of organisations. A concept that once started as “it’s the right thing to do” has become a key factor in any business case for improving organisational outcomes and efficiencies. Additionally, it has become clear that diversity manifests in different ways – it’s not just population groups but also how people approach what they are doing.
The recognition of the importance of cognitive diversity is a game changer for people with disabilities and should become the pathway to valued inclusion in the mainstream workforce. Yet disability employment rates remain stagnant, and disability leadership is nowhere to be seen. Very few studies or articles about diversity mention disability, and very few organisations are embracing disability as a highly valued employment asset.
It seems that the work of building diversity has become lost in numbers rather than outcomes. By focusing on individual population groups, rather than taking an intersectional approach, we are yet to fully embrace the real potential of diversity. We have become focused on hiring people, but have yet to work out how to use the full potential of those recruits to achieve organisational outcomes. What’s the point of building diversity in our workforce if it isn’t contributing to what our organisations are doing?
The need for change
After DLI discussions with many organisations and individuals it seems disability is still on the outside of diversity thinking. While being uncomfortable is part of diversity practice, apparently people with disabilities still make people too uncomfortable to be fully valued as equal colleagues.
The DLI 2016 national survey of disability leaders identified that the majority are working in disability specific organisations. The small percentage who are working in mainstream organisations have shared 2 common experiences with the DLI:
- I just put my head down and work, I’m not here to talk disability, and
- My other diversity attributes are welcome, but my colleagues prefer that I don’t mention my disability.
This points to a lack of valuing disability and what it can contribute to a team and an organisation. It also means the significant benefits of having a diverse workforce are missed. More critically, it raises a very uncomfortable question: do we expect our diverse workforce to become like us – to assimilate? If so, then what is the point of building diversity at all?
Are we really embracing the value of diversity, or are we so focused on statistics that the outcomes have been lost?
Diversity is exciting, has enormous benefits, and greatly enriches the workplace experience for everyone. It’s time we used our diverse workforce and valued the contribution that diverse qualities and attributes make to organisational outcomes. To do this we must embrace a disabled workforce, value the attributes of people with disabilities, and consider how they will contribute to more robust outcomes. Without this we won’t have meaningful diversity and will continue to miss the full benefits of what diversity can bring to our organisations.
The final Team Leading Disability Masterclass for managers and supervisors of diverse teams will be held in Melbourne on 30 October 2017.
Christina Ryan: Disability leadership specialist. Executive & team coaching for diversity outcomes. Founder, Disability Leadership Institute
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