How Managers Can Advance Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion In The Workplace

This article was based on episode 150 of The Modern Manager podcast. To hear this episode, and many more like it, you can subscribe to The Modern Manager Podcast on iTunes, Google Play, Spotify, iHeart Radio, Amazon, and Stitcher. Get full episode guide when you become a member at themodernmanager.com/join. Purchase any individual full episode guide at themodernmanager.com/shop.


We often hear companies talk about investing in diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). But what do those terms really mean? To be an effective manager and a better ally requires a deeper understanding of the meaning and the relationship between each part of DEI.


DIVERSITY


Diversity includes, but is not limited to, race, gender, marital status, mental health, age, sexual orientation, physical ability, and religion. Even our relationship to other people can be considered part of diversity. For example, being a caretaker of an eldery relative or a child with special needs impacts your identity and is therefore part of what makes each of us who we are. In fact, every way that individuals differ from one another can be considered an aspect of diversity.


But diversity is not just about each individual’s quirks. It’s also about how those various elements have been privileged or marginalized historically and across cultures. What this means is that a characteristic of an individual may be celebrated in one culture and criticized or even criminalized in another.


To further complicate things, the dimensions of diversity seldom stand alone. Each person is a complex combination of various characteristics, abilities, and circumstances. Intersectionality is a term used to describe how these components come together in ways that compound privilege or marginalization. For example, the experience of all women will not be the same because factors like age, race, and appearance impact how each woman is treated by society.


A few years ago, I attended a meeting with US senators in my role as board chair of a prominent nonprofit organization. I was accompanied by a white man about 10 years older than myself. While waiting in the hall of the Senate, a fellow participant in the meeting asked if I was the assistant to the man. I didn’t realize at the time the nature of the remarks as being both sexist and ageist. Honestly, I felt proud when I said, “No, I’m chair of the board and I’m the one representing our organization today.” Looking back,I see how being a young woman led to the man to think that my role must be as an assistant, but how much better would we be as a society if people didn’t make assumptions based on age, gender, race, etc.


EQUITY


Equity is about removing barriers to full participation, correcting for systemic obstacles, and providing everyone a truly fair opportunity. Equality and equity can sometimes be confused, particularly in a work environment. There are plenty of laws that try to ensure fair treatment, but sometimes equal treatment isn’t fair. For example, giving everyone at work the same size tshirt may be equality because they’re all given the same amount of fabric, but it’s not equitable if every person can’t fit into their shirt. In this case, what matters is not the amount of fabric but that everyone can enjoy wearing their company-branded tshirt.


Equity is also the implicit norms and individual unconscious biases that affect whether there is a level playing field. For example, I recently became aware of just how nuanced equitable practices are. If a hiring team gives preference to candidates who attended an Ivy League school are not narrowing the field in an equitable way because systemic racism has historically prevented many people of color from attending top-tier universities.


As managers, it’s important for us to consider both how our formal organizational systems work toward equity and also how we ourselves are working to interrupt patterns of inequity.


INCLUSION


Inclusion is creating an environment where people feel comfortable to be their authentic self without feeling like they need to code-switch or adjust to fit in. In an inclusive environment, people feel welcomed for being themselves and are able to express themselves without fear of judgement or other consequences.


Inclusion is complex in that it is both about our actions and about the perceptions of those around us. Think of it this way: When you host a party, you want your guests to have fun. You do everything you can think of to create the optimal atmosphere, but at the end of the night, you can’t control if everyone has a good time. When it comes to inclusion, it’s critical to foster an inclusive environment, but it’s not only up to you. Inclusion is a team effort.


BEING AN ALLY


Being an ally is more than being a good friend, it’s about taking on the struggles of the oppressed as your own. Allyship requires that we educate ourselves about the struggles of other people, that we invest in our personal growth, that we amplify marginalized voices, and that we transfer the benefits of our privilege to those who lack it.


The metaphor of Boots and Sandals by Presley Pizzo can be useful in understanding how privilege factors into our interactions. In short, imagine your privilege comes in the form of a heavy boot that keeps you from noticing when you’re stepping on someone’s feet or they’re stepping on yours. Yet, oppressed people only have sandals.


The question is, if someone points out that you’re stepping on their toes, how do you react?


Do you get defensive or embarrassed? Do you respond with anger or avoidance? An ally listens, apologizes and works to do better in the future.


WHAT ALLYSHIP MEANS IN THE WORKPLACE


The first step in being a good ally in the workplace is awareness. This awareness can come from a member of your team or from your own independent research on issues of the systemic nature of bias and inequity.


One helpful way to become more cognizant of the situation in your workplace is to start paying attention to things like who speaks first during meetings, who gets credit for ideas, who you invest time and energy in developing, who you show appreciation to, who you give feedback to, and who you turn to for help.


Strong ally’s don’t always get it right. In fact, getting it wrong is part of the learning journey. There will be tough moments, of which I’ve had my fair share. At one point, I even considered stepping back from my role on a team because I was so distraught over my mistakes and the unintended pain they caused a colleague. But the reality is that my comfort is less important than my learning. Sometimes, learning means we’re going to be vulnerable, hurt others, and say or do things we later regret. But as a good ally, we can be self reflective, stay in the work, and do better going forward.


Get the full episode guide when you become a member of the Modern Manager community at themodernmanager.com/join. Or, purchase any individual episode guide at themodernmanager.com/shop to help you implement the learnings and continue to enhance your rockstar manager skills.


This article was based on episode 150 of The Modern Manager podcast. To hear this episode, and many more like it, you can subscribe to The Modern Manager Podcast on iTunes, Google Play, Spotify, iHeart Radio, Amazon, and Stitcher. Never miss a worksheet, episode or article: subscribe to Mamie’s newsletter.

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