Diversity & Inclusion

The Biggest Problem With Diversity Is That We Think of It as a Problem

The business world has a problem. For years, well-intentioned companies have been scrambling to improve their workplace diversity by launching diversity campaigns, internal investigations, and more. But despite this, most companies are still failing to make a meaningful difference. In fact, a new report showed the pay gap between black and white technology workers has widened by more than $5,000 this year alone.

Improving diversity at work is not just the right thing to do—it is business-critical. And businesses’ welcoming diverse people and perspectives enables them to avoid the mistakes that occur when everyone comes from the same background—like the company that created an automatic soap dispenser that couldn’t recognize different skin tones.

In the rush to achieve recognition for being inclusive, some companies have started launching diversity initiatives without putting in the required research to ensure their programs are actually effective. And companies’ trying to find ways to increase diversity in the hiring process has led to unexpected negativity about race as a factor to consider when hiring.

What these companies are doing wrong is they are approaching diversity as a problem to be fixed rather than an opportunity to learn and make meaningful change. If a company wants to genuinely increase diversity, there are a few things it needs to do:

Reframe the Approach to Recruiting

Over the years, I’ve received questions about whether prioritizing prospective job candidates with diverse backgrounds is the best way to increase workplace diversity. But diversity is only one part of the equation, and prioritizing a candidate based solely on his or her diverse background is not an effective long-term approach on its own. Inclusivity must be part of the plan, too; companies that fail to foster inclusive workplace cultures have a tough time retaining new hires.

We are seeing more evidence that “talent is equally distributed, but opportunity is not.” We need to recognize that our society is ingrained with systemic inequalities. One way to address these inequalities is through diverse talent recruitment, which involves creating a more diverse talent pool so qualified candidates inherently come from a range of unique backgrounds. But because our talent pool isn’t currently diverse, and because there’s such a wide opportunity gap, companies have traditionally needed to look farther and wider to find diverse talent.

To begin practicing diverse talent recruitment, partner with organizations such as Year Up, Genesys Works, Society of Black Engineers, or the Society of Women Engineers. These organizations, among many others, strive to close the opportunity divide and foster a diverse talent pool.

Turn Celebrations into Educational Moments

Celebrations of cultural and identity-related events are an important part of any workplace environment because they help employees feel respected and welcomed. But companies that recognize these events with onetime celebrations are missing a big opportunity to turn these celebrations into something educational. This offers employees the chance to educate their team on the larger context and significance of these cultural events. Over time, these educational celebrations will provide everyone with more background on the organization’s unique cultures and how coworkers may celebrate or support them.

For example, Pride month is a great opportunity for education. Employees can take the lead on running a series of panels and blog posts on the history of Stonewall or on some of the common challenges faced by members of the LGBT community. It’s possible some employees won’t already know about this history and context, so Pride month celebrations are a perfect opportunity to create more awareness.

Look Beyond Gender Diversity

Many companies put a strong focus on gender diversity by addressing the gender pay gap and ensuring an equal number of men and women are in roles at various levels—and that’s certainly a step in the right direction. But diversity is so much more than gender, and we need to recognize the intersectionality of identities in order to create truly inclusive workplaces. To foster a genuine sense of belonging in the workplace, diversity initiatives should address race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, each individual’s unique upbringing, current experiences, and more.

It’s also important to recognize when a company is making assumptions that may not be fair to all genders. For example, more often than not, it’s assumed men will be able to join after-work events and won’t need to rush home for child care. But this isn’t always the case—the share of men taking on childcare duties has been increasing in recent years, and it is important to recognize that gender equity must support all identities without any implicit assumptions. Solving for gender inequality is important, but if it becomes the sole focus, inclusivity will suffer.

We have a long way to go in creating a diverse workforce, and it’s time to stop thinking of diversity as a problem that needs to be fixed. Instead, we need to talk about diversity initiatives as an opportunity to change the way things have been and identify ways to bring diverse perspectives to the table. It’s about creating a safe space where people can have important conversations, learn, and grow.

Madhavi Bhasin is the Head of Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging at Okta.