But these numbers aren’t improving year over year for many. In some companies, this issue has led to a laser priority on increasing numbers with a focus on only one identity.
In the business world, these two pieces of advice – prioritize increasing your key metrics and focus on one thing – are pillars of a successful strategy. Otherwise, too much gets in the way and the team does not know where it’s headed.
With diversity, however, this can be a recipe for failure.
Humans are inherently, well, diverse. That’s what brings innovation, new ideas, access to new markets, and better consumer understanding. Trying to increase diversity by focusing on only one identity might offer some vanity metrics, but in the long run does not tackle the underlying issues that caused the lack of diversity in the first place.
A quick disclaimer
When I say “diversity,” I am using the phrase to refer to both inherent and acquired diversity. This definition truly does include all people, and it becomes incumbent on an organization to recognize and promote the “diversity” in every one of their employees.
Why do single-identity diversity strategies fail?
Put simply: no human has only one identity.
Regardless of how good a person we think we are, humans love to feel included and like we are “in the know.” A strategy that is focused solely on one identity means that anyone who does not share that identity will not be included. A couple studies, notably from Harvard Business Review, found this is big problem.
Trying to increase diversity by focusing on only one identity might offer some vanity metrics, but in the long run does not tackle the underlying issues that caused the lack of diversity in the first place.
Does your company have a single-identity diversity strategy? Don’t worry! There’s something you can do
If you find yourself in a company that cares about diversity and inclusion but is focused on only one identity – women, for instance – there are things you can do to help ensure that you’re still making real progress.
1. Allow “scope-creep”
For those of you lucky enough to not know what scope-creep is, it’s when you planned to do only ABC but then ABCDE happens because life took over. Usually, this is a bad thing.
This time, scope-creep can be a tool to make your diversity strategy more powerful without watering down the message.
Taking a look at “women,” you’ll notice there are many different ways a “woman” can exist in the world. She might be lesbian, bi, trans, or straight. She might have a disability or be able-bodied. She might be white, black, Asian, of Indigenous heritage, or any other racial/ethnic background.
If the initial scope is “woman,” the “creep” is the intersecting levels of identity – sexuality, race, ability, etc.
When looking at strategies and initiatives to be inclusive of “women,” ask how the initiatives will be inclusive of all types of women. If a specific initiative either does not help or inadvertently harms another type of woman, then the “women” strategy cannot be accomplished to its fullest potential and might benefit from iteration and editing, which we’ll get into in the next two tips.
When you include other types of women in the strategy, you naturally build initiatives that are helpful for members of other communities even though you don’t have a “focus” on them. For instance, if an initiative is good for a woman with Indigenous heritage, it will likely be at least somewhat good for all people with Indigenous heritage. It offers you a starting point to build on later.
2. Have both “problem” and “solution” interviews
I’ve been lucky to work with over 100 companies on their diversity and inclusion initiatives, and in that time I’ve seen a common thread:
- A diversity committee is founded and supported by an executive champion.
- That committee, often filled with members from diverse communities, talks amongst themselves and may do surveys or interviews with other employees to see how they feel and what they believe a solution might be to make their organization more diverse and inclusive.
- Then, taking all the feedback they gather and their own brainstorming, the committee comes up with a solution, presents it to the executive, gets buy-in, and moves on to talk about roll-out plan.
This sounds great, except for one thing: no one checked with employees if they actually want the solution.
Since the interview/survey process is bound to have some communication challenges, it’s highly possible that the committee could get all the right information but then put the pieces together in a way that does not resonate with those it intends to support.
In these cases, the committee did a good job of “problem interviews,” which are asking people how they feel about a given problem and what they think the solution should be (whether actual interviews, surveys, or another feedback method).
Where they missed the mark, however, is the “solution interview,” which is the process of going back to the original interviewees and showing them your solution, asking for feedback and buy-in before announcing its roll-out.
Closing the feedback loop with solution interviews is crucial because it:
- Ensures that the solution will have more adoption; if everyone is signing off on the solution, then you can leverage that commitment during roll-out
- Helps make sure the strategy didn’t accidentally miss something that could harm both adoption and impact
This is also a prime opportunity to include allies in the conversation.
By re-crafting a version of your strategy with neutral language, you are armed with different ways to discuss the initiatives depending on your audience – helping get buy-in from skeptics and ensuring that your allies can help you in the conversation.
Get the problems from their perspective as well, and run the solutions by them. Including them in the conversation helps get increased buy-in organization-wide, reduces resentment around feeling “excluded,” and offers your allies more information on the process so they can support you.
3. Create two “versions” of your strategy – and then use the second
When it comes to diversity strategy, it’s easy to get lost in the passion of it all. That’s not a bad thing; diversity committees are people who deeply care about the challenges that a given community faces (and, much of the time, they are members of that community). A company should applaud this passion and effort.
By allowing “scope-creep” to consider other identities and conducting both problem and solution interviews, you are likely to have a very robust strategy. However, when a strategy is only written for the community it directly aims to include, it can read as exclusionary even when it doesn’t intend to be.
After your strategy, written with a focus for the communit(y/ies) at hand, is created, go back and edit it to make the language as generic as possible without removing the intended effects.
Have maternity leave suggested in your “women” strategy? Make it parental leave.
Have “more women’s bathrooms” included? Recommend single-stall bathrooms in the building, if that’s feasible, or ask for gender neutral bathroom options.
By re-crafting your strategy with neutral language, you are armed with different ways to discuss the initiatives depending on your audience – helping get buy-in from skeptics and ensuring that your allies can help you in the conversation.
Tying it all together
“Scope-creep,” problem/solution interviews, and creating two versions of your strategy all strengthen one another, helping you get a strategy that is more holistic even as your company has an explicit focus on one identity.
It will require some extra effort, self-reflection, and bridge-building, but the result is far more lasting and impactful.
Having an anchor to your diversity strategy can help you prioritize some of your efforts and get the initiatives underway, while a holistic approach keeps everyone in mind. As successes and quick wins start coming in, you can push further into expanding more “anchors” of your diversity strategy or push executives to focus on intersectionality from the top-down.
Either way, you’re able to target underlying barriers and values, creating a stronger, healthier culture where everyone is able to do their best work.