During a focus group on Intersectionality with women from different backgrounds, we were discussing the topic of inclusion and what we can do to create a more inclusive environment in the workplace. I made two suggestions throughout the conversation, and both were met with stark resistance. The first was the idea that we should invite men into this conversation so we’d have a broader perspective and could incorporate their feedback into any action we decided to take. Someone quickly responded with, “We shouldn’t invite men in here. They’ll just come in and try to tell us what to do. We need to wait until we’ve figured out what we want to do, and then let them know.” My second suggestion was that we rebrand an annual conference that has the word “Women” in it to something more inclusive, such as “People” or “Intersections.” Once again, the feedback was swift and definitive: “We need to continue calling out Women in the title. This is our time and we need to highlight that we’re showcasing women.”
The comments during this discussion were both illuminating and alarming. Literally in the context of creating a more inclusive work environment, I heard broad sweeping generalizations about men and how they would behave in that situation, and also the idea that “this is our time.” I sat back and wondered how those comments would be interpreted if they had been more along the lines of, “we shouldn’t invite women to this discussion because they’ll be too emotional,” or, “let’s keep focusing on white men because that’s how it’s always been.” To me, these are signals of the behaviors we so desperately seek to abolish. The first is an unfair assumption that everyone in a particular population thinks, feels, and behaves in the same way, and the second is an indication of playing a zero-sum game; the idea that someone must lose (or not get the spotlight) in order for someone else to win. Rather than see the coronation of a new group as kings (or queens), can we create a meritocracy where the individual with the best traits is celebrated and promoted?
The work of feminists and civil rights activists has brought us so far. The world we live in, especially in corporate America, looks very different from that of even 50 years ago. But are these efforts enough to take us to the next level of diversity and inclusion? I constantly hear about the uphill battle of increasing the numbers of women in STEM careers by one or two percentage points, or the woeful lack of ethnic minorities in technical fields. What happens if we hit some arbitrary target of 50% women in these areas? What is the outcome we’re seeking? Will the heavens part and rain equality upon us, eliminating all bias and stereotypes? Should we focus our attention on other qualifiers?
What if we changed the conversation? What if we talked about how to ensure anyone who is passionate and interested in pursuing a particular field has the freedom and resources to do so? What if we stopped pointing out to the 11 year old girl in a coding class that she’s the only girl there? What if we stopped forcing young boys to play with trucks and Legos if they prefer Barbies and fashion? What if we focused more on the things that bring us together rather than those that separate us?
Spoiler alert: I wholeheartedly believe in the immense value of inclusion. Regardless of all the studies that show the business benefits of diversity and inclusion, for me it’s selfishly motivated – I become a better person when I’m surrounded by people who think and see the world differently. I learn new perspectives and broaden my view of reality. If we surround ourselves with only people who think, talk, or look like us, we create an echo chamber. While it may be comfortable to live in this chamber, it stifles growth and learning. Why not use this one precious life to have the most enriched experience possible? Why not learn and see as much as we can? If we simply coast through life numb or comfortable, have we really lived?
In the company I work for, we have resource groups designed to build communities among the employees. They have been instrumental over the years in helping us find our tribes at work and achieve fulfillment outside of our day jobs. With these groups, we can participate in social outings, volunteer projects, career building workshops, you name it. But upon closer inspection, I see that most of the groups are named after physical identifiers that serve to keep us apart rather than bring us together. It’s easy to say that white people are welcome at an event labeled for “black professionals,” or that men are invited to events with “women” in the title, but unless you are the sort of person who enjoys intentionally getting out of your comfort zone, it can be difficult to work up the courage to attend an event where you know you’ll be in the stark minority.
A couple of years ago, I heard a leader say, “Diversity is being invited to the party, but inclusion is being asked to dance.” While I understand the sentiment of what he was saying, I took the analogy a step further: inclusion is being asked about the dances of your culture and people taking a genuine interest in learning them. What I mean by this is that it’s not quite good enough simply to promote a woman into a leadership role if she is being held to traditional expectations and stereotypes of leadership. You may have taught her to “dance” in a way that gets her to the next steps in her career, but what if that dance isn’t true to herself? If we hold her to a standard that isn’t her authentic style, then she will never realize her full potential in that role.
What if we created groups around us that brought people together based on shared interests and personalities? Rather than calling out a smaller number of women in science and engineering roles, what if we created the Coding Club, or Volunteering Group?
What’s needed now is a recognition that while we’ve come very far, we still have so far to go. Incremental improvements will not get us to a place where we are truly inclusive. We need a step function to take us to the next level. Can we overcome social and cultural norms to unite and create a more inclusive workplace? It’s not about unseating the dominant power simply to replace it with a new one, but creating a new landscape where individuals can connect and thrive.