The Complexity of Diversity

What you’ll learn to do: Describe the complexity of diversity in the workplace

A transfeminine executive meeting with a non-binary employeeAs we have just discussed, diversity is everywhere, including the workplace, and that’s a wonderful thing! Diversity can be defined on a variety of levels. There are both external and internal factors that need to be considered when discussing diversity. External diversity is often displayed in a person’s appearance. External diversity can include but is not limited to, gender, age, ethnicity, and sometimes even religion. It is also important to note that even external diversity traits are not always easy to identify as not everyone ages the same or looks the same, even if they’re from the same part of the world or expressed their gender in the same way.

Internal diversity, on the other hand, is an even more challenging to define and identify. Internal diversity includes individual experiences and backgrounds. Internal diversity examples may include how people were raised, where they went to school, previous job experience, etc.

Not every piece of the diversity puzzle can fit neatly into a category. Diversity is extremely complex and incorporates almost every aspect of a person’s life. You may find people that are similar to you and have similar core values and beliefs; however, there is no one who is exactly like you because everyone has different experiences throughout their lifetime. Even similar interactions and experiences may have a different effect on each individual who lives it.

The workplace is equally as complex as the rest of society. Once again, the workplace will not identically mirror society but it still experiences similar diversity challenges. In this next section we will discuss five different types of diversity and how they each influence organizations.

Learning Outcomes

  • Discuss generational diversity in the workplace
  • Discuss the benefits and challenges of gender diversity in the workplace
  • Discuss racial diversity in the workplace
  • Discuss religious diversity in the workplace
  • Discuss the role of sexual orientation in the workplace
  • Discuss the impact of disabilities in the workplace

Generations

We learned about generational differences in Module 1: Introduction to Organizational Behavior; we discussed the Baby Boomers, Generation X, and Generation Y. While we discussed the differences within today’s three working generations, we did not discuss why it is important to have these differences. There are both benefits and challenges to having a wide variety of generations working within an organization. Let’s get exploring!

Building a Product TEam

Three people of different ages sitting on a bench. The person on the left is in the 30-40 year-old range, the person in the middle is in the 5-10 year old range, and the person on the left has a cane and is in the 60-75 year old range.You are the manager of a marketing department and it is your job to assemble a team to introduce a new product to the market. How do you choose your team? Do you pick a team who is all in the same age range and would use the product you are marketing? Or would you choose a mix of ages to incorporate each generation? There is no right or wrong answer here, but whichever team you chose would influence the path to your team’s success.

It would make sense to choose people who would actually use the product to ensure you understand the generation you are marketing to. However, it would be equally as important to include people from other generations to balance out the team. There is value in both experience and youth. Experience brings a level of expertise to the table that has been honed over years and years of hard work and life lessons. Youth on the other hand can bring fresh perspective and enthusiasm to the workforce. New employees enter into the workforce with the newest training and information available. Both the experienced and the youthful members of the workforce each have something valuable to offer to the other and it is imperative that they work together in order to be successful.

Now let’s view generational diversity in a different light. A lot of generational differences are stereotypes of how others view the generation. Like many stereotypes, there is usually a reason behind its creation, however it is by no means all encompassing. It is unfair to assume that every member of one generation feels the same way about work-life priorities, other generations, and technology.

PRactice Question

So, the question becomes, is generational diversity a valid way to categorize members of the workforce? Or is there a better, more effective way to understand individuals?

Learn More

Watch Leah Georges’s TEDx talk, How generational stereotypes hold us back at work, to learn about a different perspective on generational differences. Then you can decide the best way to approach generational diversity in the workplace!

Gender Diversity

Photograph of a man and two womenWhat’s in a chromosome (or two)? The difference in the pair of sex chromosomes determines whether a child is female (XX) or male (XY) at birth has a significant impact on the individual’s personal and professional development. It is not biology that affects our experience and expectations in the workplace (as some who would justify gender inequality would propose), but socialization, an accumulation of cultural, historical, and legal precedent that has created the gender divide in our society.

According to the Brookings Institution, women’s labor force participation has reversed since 2000 and “large gaps remain between men and women in employment rates, the jobs they hold, the wages they earn, and their overall economic security.” This is not just a women’s issue. In a publication from the Hamilton Project at Brookings, the authors conclude that “barriers to workforce participation for women are stifling the growth of the U.S. economy, and that future economic success hinges on improving career prospects and working environments for all women.”[1]

Over the years, gendered terms (for example, “men”) have come to be interpreted more broadly; that is, as referring to both men and women, but the language is hardly inclusive. Indeed, the concept of gender as binary—that is, either female or male—may itself be an anachronism. As the traditional ideas of gender and gender identity are evolving and in order to adapt to a changing reality, the language and operating framework must change accordingly.

Are There Differences in Gender Communication?

Starting in childhood, girls and boys are generally socialized to belong to distinct cultures based on their gender and thus speak in ways particular to their own gender’s rules and norms (Fivush; Hohnson; Tannen). This pattern of gendered socialization continues throughout our lives. As a result, men and women often interpret the same conversation differently. Culturally diverse ways of speaking based on gender can cause miscommunication between members of each culture or speech community. These cultural differences are seen in the simple purpose of communication.

Although gender roles are changing, and gender itself is becoming a more fluid concept, traditional roles still influence our communication behaviors. For those socialized to traditional female gender norms, an important purpose of communication is to create and foster relational connections with other people (Johnson; Stamou). In contrast, the goal of men’s communication is primarily to establish identity. This is accomplished by demonstrating independence and control and entertaining or performing for others.

Deborah Tannen, professor of linguistics and the author of multiple books on gender and language, provides the following examples of differences in men’s and women’s communication:[2]

  • “Men engage in report talk, women in rapport talk.”
    • Report talk is used to demonstrate one’s knowledge and expertise.
    • Rapport talk is used to share and cultivate relationships.
  • Women request; men direct.
    • For example, in communicating a request, a female manager might say: “Could you do this by 5 PM?” A male manager would typically phrase it: “This needs to be done by 5 PM.”
  • Women are information focused; men are image focused.
    • For example, women are willing to ask questions to clarify understanding. Men tend to avoid asking clarifying questions in order to preserve their reputation.
  • Empathy is not apology.
    • Women often use the phrase “I’m sorry” to express concern or empathy. Men tend to interpret this phrase as an acceptance of responsibility for the situation, which it is not.
  • Women are judged by their appearance; men are judged by what they say and do.

As in all things, it’s important to remember that while these differences exist between groups, all individuals will fall somewhere along a spectrum of these tendencies. Additionally, you may run into men who demonstrate more “feminine” tendencies in their speech or vice versa.

James Damore

We see this struggle playing out at Google, where efforts to include more women in technical roles are meeting with some resistance. The conflict surfaced when James Damore, a white male engineer, posted a ten page critique of Google’s diversity efforts titled “Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber” on an internal discussion board. One of the most inflammatory points made was that “biological differences between men and women might explain why we don’t see equal representation of women in tech and leadership.” In his memo, Damore states his belief that women are better attuned to aesthetics and people rather than ideas and that this, as well as their “higher agreeableness” (versus aggressiveness) and “neuroticism,” rather than sexism accounts for gender gaps. The “manifesto,” as some call it, resulted in Damore being fired for violating Google’s code of conduct by “advancing harmful gender stereotypes in our workplace.”

Google CEO Sundar Pichai responded to the memo in a note to employees, which includes this excerpt: “To suggest a group of our colleagues have traits that make them less biologically suited to that work is offensive and not OK. It is contrary to our basic values and our Code of Conduct, which expects ‘each Googler to do their utmost to create a workplace culture that is free of harassment, intimidation, bias and unlawful discrimination.’”

In a development that reflects the nation’s sociopolitical polarization, it appears Damore’s firing, rather than ending the issue, has turned him into what a USA Today writer terms a “hero of a resurgent conservative movement.” Damore has since filed a lawsuit against Google, claiming the search giant discriminates against white, conservative men. In a development worth watching, Damore and David Gudeman, another former Google engineer, are being represented by Harmeet Dhillon, the Republican National Committee’s committeewoman for California. Her law firm is seeking class action status for the plaintiffs.

Practice Question

Racial Diversity

Photograph of a middle eastern woman wearing a hijabAs with every form of diversity we have discussed, racial diversity is an important part of the workplace. Each year the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission data shows that an average of $112.7 million a year is collected from employers to pay for racial discrimination violations. This tells us that there is still work to be done to provide a welcoming and inclusive work environment.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 made discrimination on the basis of race illegal. However, even though the Civil Rights Act was able to change the law, changing the minds and perceptions of others in society may not be as cut and dry. To ensure employment equality, additional pieces of law and regulations have been put in place to protect minority groups. This includes, but is not limited to Equal Employment Opportunity Laws and Affirmative Action. However, even with these laws and regulations in place, the racial diversity growth numbers are moving at an alarmingly slow rate. According to recent numbers, Google’s workforce is 3% Latino and 2% Black. LinkedIn’s company has 5% Latino and 3% Black employees. These are just a small sampling of companies, but the trend is across the board. So what is the problem? Why do companies have such low racial diversity? There is no one-size-fits-all answer here but let’s explore some of the possibilities.

First we need to examine company diversity goals. There are four possibilities:

  1. A company sets a goal to become more diverse and implements it at all three levels of influence
  2. A company wants to be more diverse, sets a goal to do it, but doesn’t know the proper way to go about making it happen
  3. A company states they want to be more diverse but put in no effort to do so
  4. A company wants to keep things as-is and has no interest in diversity

Every company is different and so are their goals. For the purpose of this section, let’s address numbers one and two.

We need to examine recruiting methods in order to see why a larger number of diverse individuals do not get hired. Many companies hire employees based on internal referrals. There is no better advertisement for a company than a happy employee. Therefore, it is not uncommon for people to apply for positions where they know someone on the inside. This is not always beneficial for creating diversity because people are oftentimes attracted to individuals similar to themselves. In addition, we need to examine where the company is recruiting new employees. If they continue to recruit from the same places, chances are their applicant pool will remain pretty similar.

Furthermore, there are unspoken and unconscious biases in each of us. Some biases we may not even realize we have. So how does this play a role in encouraging diversity? Marianne Bertrand from Chicago’s Graduate School of Business and Sendhil Mullainathan with MIT, conducted an experiment to see how different names on resumes may play a role in getting a call back. They fabricated names and created fake resumes to send to thousands of different job openings and their findings were rather alarming. According to their study, “Applicants with white-sounding names were 50 percent more likely to be contacted for job interviews than those with typical black names.”[3] Whether the decision to call someone in for an interview based on their name was a conscience decision or a subconscious one, it is definitely something to address!

Dawn D. Bennett-Alexander is a lawyer, an associate professor of Employment Law and Legal Studies at UGA, and co-author of the leading Employment Law text in the country. She gave a TEDx Talk on how to utilize “Practical Diversity” in the workplace and in your everyday life. You can view her talk below.

Many people think of African Americans and Caucasians when they think of racial diversity. However, this leaves out other minority groups, such as Hispanic and Asian individuals, who face similar challenges in the workplace and do not account for a large percentage of the workforce. We must strive to get tomorrow’s workforce to more closely mirror the breakdown of the total population—at all levels of all places of work. The bottom line is that today’s workforce has room to grow in regards to racial diversity in the workplace, and it starts with identifying the issue and creating a plan to fix it!

Practice Question

Religious Diversity

Many people have been taught that it is bad etiquette to discuss religion and politics at the dinner table. Both religion and politics are very emotional subjects that can quickly turn from a conversation to an argument. People are likely to take others’ opinions and disagreements to heart when discussing religion and politics which does not lead to a nice and relaxing gathering.

So what about in the workplace? People on average will spend about one third of their life at their job. Therefore, it is important to learn how to handle conversations about religion and politics in a constructive manner. This is not to say that religion and politics should be a daily topic of conversation. However, approaching an unfamiliar topic with genuine curiosity and a desire to understand can be a great way to foster diversity. Asking questions does not mean you always have to agree with the answer, however, it may give you a new perspective.

For the purpose of this section, let’s specifically focus on religious diversity in the workplace. How can companies foster an inclusive environment for people from all religions? A very simple way is to create a calendar with a wide variety of holidays. This will allow people from all religions to share their holiday celebrations with those at work. It is also a great opportunity for people to learn about their coworkers. Some companies even have floating holiday options available to employees which allows them to take off work according to the religious holidays they observe. Companies can also have a quiet space available for employees who need to pray or reflect. Dress codes should also be accommodating to allow religious attire like yarmulkes or hijabs. Even small actions like having non-pork options at luncheons or social outings without alcohol to better incorporate all religious beliefs can make a huge impact. Often the only “extra” work that needs to be done is pausing to think of others’ needs and considerations.

Practice Question

As with all forms of diversity, the first step is to simply be respectful and understanding of people’s differences. Viewing everyone’s differences as a learning opportunity or a way to get to know them better will create a more inclusive work environment. Humans are naturally curious and that is a good thing! However, be sure to present your curiosity in a respectful manner. Some people may not be comfortable discussing their religious beliefs, and this is okay—remember that no one owes you an answer. And if you’re really curious, there are plenty of online resources written by members of religions that you can find.

So if being inclusive is such a simply thing to do, why do so many companies struggle with it? Incorporating inclusive guidelines on a corporate and team level is important to ensuring an inclusive environment. Since religion is such a personal subject and choice, religious inclusion on a personal level can be a little harder to achieve. However, by implementing some of the ideas listed above, there is a greater possibility for religious tolerance and inclusion.

Sexual Orientation in the Workplace

A transfeminine non-binary person and transmasculine gender-nonconforming person look at each other on a couchEven though talking about your personal life is accepted in many workplaces, it is not always an all-inclusive invitation. People with a variety of sexual orientations may not be comfortable sharing information about their personal life for fear that they will be treated differently because of it. That brings us to the topic of sexual orientation discrimination. So what is it exactly? Sexual orientation discrimination is when someone is treated differently or even harassed because of their perceived sexual orientation.

Let’s examine what being “treated differently” would look like. Being treated differently would include but is not limited to not getting promoted, receiving multiple coachings or write-ups with little to no justification, wrongful termination, etc. Harassment is another form of discrimination people face at work. Harassment in any form is not acceptable by society’s standards. However, there are not universal laws in place to protect people from sexual orientation discrimination in the workplace.

As we have discussed earlier in this module, organizations such as the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) ensure discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, national origin, age, disability, or genetic information is not tolerated. Sex in this case includes pregnancy, gender identity, and sexual orientation (EEOC). However, the EEOC is not able to enforce these laws with all companies. Instead, some companies are not covered under the EEOC, and people trying to file a complaint need to look to their state for other anti-discrimination laws to use to support their claim.

There are currently 23 states and Washington D.C. that have explicit state laws in place to ensure discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity are prohibited. On the other hand, there are 26 states with no laws in place to protect people from sexual orientation and gender identity discrimination (Wisconsin prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation but does not mention gender identity). For a more detailed list on which states have anti-discrimination laws in place, you can check out the Movement Advancement Project here.

Practice Question

So what can people do to prevent discrimination in the workplace based on sexual orientation? As with every form of discrimination, the best way to circumvent it is by approaching every individual with respect. Treating others as you would like to be treated is such an elementary rule but it can have a great impact on building better relationships and healthier work environments.

Disabilities

So far in this module we have discussed cultural forms of diversity, yet in a work setting we are also exposed to individuals with varied skills, talents, and abilities. Another component of diversity in the workplace is the wide range of physical and mental abilities of people you may work with. A common misconception or view of people with disabilities focuses on what an individual may lack or cannot do. Characterizing people solely by their disabilities and perceiving them as inferior to the non-disabled can lead to social prejudice and discrimination, also known as ableism.

Our challenge in the area of disabilities is learning to transcend our perception of someone’s limitations, to adopt universal design thinking and practices in order to accommodate a range of abilities, and, thereby, extend the possibilities for both individual and collective business performance.

A poster advertising National Disability Employment Awareness Month-Celebrating 70 years. The poster reads, "My disability is one part of who I am. At work, it's what people can do that matters." The poster shows an image of 2 men and 2 women, one of the men has a service dog and one of the women is in a wheelchair. The poster reads, "My disability is one part of who I am. At work, it's what people can do that matters. National Disability Employment Awareness Month- Celebrating 70 Years!"

National Disability Employment Awareness Month: The goal of this initiative is to celebrate individuals with disabilities strengthening the workforce and to bring awareness and education concerning the issue.

Impossible is an opinion—not a fact.

—Paul Hockey

Collage of icons representing different disabilities and impairments. Icons include: man with cane, woman with child, pregnant woman, ear, person with service dog, and person in wheelchair.

General perception and understanding of those who are different is not unlike ancient cultures’ understanding of the world: flawed (i.e., the belief the world was flat) and with large areas marked “the great unknown.” This is particularly the case when it comes to people with disabilities. This lack of understanding is due to a combination of factors including a lack of exposure to people with disabilities, the amorphous definition of disability, and privacy and discrimination concerns. People with disabilities are under-represented in media and entertainment—a situation that the Alliance for Inclusion in the Arts is seeking to address. The ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) text defines an individual with a disability as a person who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, a person who has a history or record of such an impairment, or a person who is perceived by others as having such an impairment. Further, people with disabilities are not required to disclose their disability, and indeed, they are often advised not to—at least in the job search process.[4]

So how do we approach the great unknown? Let’s start by considering our perceptions of people with disabilities. In the award-winning short Different, by Tahneek Rahman, we see two young people navigating a new relationship. The actors’ perceptions and emotions are shaped and colored by what they think they see; then, like a kaleidoscope, reality changes. As you watched the film, how did you feel when you looked through the young girl’s eyes as she peered through the bushes? It may have felt like you’ve been here before—in a situation you thought you understood, only to have your perspective shift and click into place, framing a new reality. How often do we do this with people who are wired differently or have a different range of abilities?

Learn More

Empathy goes a long way in bridging knowledge and communications gaps. For a start, watch one or more of the videos in Soul Pancake’s How You See Me series.

Summiting Mount Everest

A photograph of Mount Everest; the mountain is covered in snow and imposing.Perhaps our perception of ability—and disability—says more about us then it does about others. So before we discuss communication specifics, let’s broaden our perspective of what’s possible. Erik Weihenmayer is one of seven disabled athletes to have successfully climbed Mount Everest, the highest mountain in the world at 29,029 feet above sea level. The only blind person to summit Everest to date, Erik went on to complete the “Seven Summit” challenge, scaling the highest peaks of each of the seven continents. Erik subsequently co-founded No Barriers, a non-profit organization that helps youth, veterans, and people with disabilities achieve transformative challenges. The organization’s motto: Unleash the Human Spirit.

Indian amputee Arunima Sinha is another of the seven disabled Everest summiters. In the aftermath of a train accident that severed her leg, Arunima “pondered on the most impossible dream I could set for myself. I decided to climb Everest.” Erik and Arunima are remarkable athletes and people, but there are thousands of similar stories—people who, by birth or circumstance, found themselves at a relative disadvantage and yet prevailed and indeed, thrived. Clearly, they did not see their disability as a limitation. Tapping this human spirit is critical to business success in a competitive global economy.

Overcoming Communication Challenges

People with disabilities can experience unique communication challenges whether they have sensory impairments (blindness or deafness), cognitive disorders (autism spectrum disorder, post-stroke challenges), or physical disabilities (head trauma or neurological injury). In particular, some communication difficulties in the workplace can include the following:

  • Difficulty speaking: speech may be unclear, interrupted by stuttering, or abnormally slow, fast or irregularly paced
  • Difficulty with listening for extended periods or listening to multiple people participating in a conversation
  • Difficulty reading manuals with dense amounts of text
  • Difficulty keeping track of procedural material without the help of notes or hands-on experience
  • Difficulty interpreting language that has implied meaning such as indirect requests or offers for help, or certain types of humor
  • Difficulty interpreting body language, the emotions of others, or other non-verbal language
  • Difficulty communicating with unfamiliar people; this can include eye contact

Whether individuals have disclosed a disability or not, the way you approach a communication breakdown or misunderstanding matters. If you do not understand something a person says, do not pretend that you do. Ask the individual to repeat what he or she said and then repeat it back. Try to ask questions that require only short answers or a nod of the head. Concentrate on what the person is saying and do not rush to a conclusion about what you think they mean. Do not speak for the individual or attempt to finish her or his sentences. If you are having difficulty understanding the individual, consider writing as an alternative means of communicating, but first ask whether this is acceptable.

Other things to consider are:

  • If you are in a public area with many distractions, consider moving to a quiet or private location.
  • Be prepared to repeat what you say, orally or in writing.
  • Offer assistance completing forms or understanding written instructions and provide extra time for decision-making. Wait for the individual to accept the offer of assistance; do not “over-assist” or be patronizing.
  • Be patient, flexible and supportive. Take time to understand the individual and make sure the individual understands you.

If you notice a communication breakdown or misunderstanding, it is of utmost importance to treat everyone with dignity, respect, and courtesy. Be patient, be supportive, and take as much time as necessary to listen to the individual because it can make all of the difference.

Practice Question

There are also simple, practical adjustments we can make in our one-on-one interactions that will facilitate effective communication. The following eight recommendations, adapted from a toolkit for medical practitioners, are equally relevant to communicating with people with disabilities in the workplace (Heath Care for Adults with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities):

  • Allocate additional time to achieve the communication objective.
  • Be aware of your tone of voice and nonverbal signals.
  • Moderate your speaking pace and give the person with a disability adequate time to process and respond to what you’ve communicated.
  • Actively confirm the person’s understanding and your own understanding of what he or she communicated.
  • Focus on abilities rather than disabilities.
  • Use specific rather than abstract language; for example, “bring a pen and paper” rather than “get ready for the meeting.”
  • Stage conversations in areas that are relatively quiet without distracting activity or background noise.

Just as our history is not our destiny, our frame of reference doesn’t need to limit our future possibilities—individually or collectively, as a business or society. Disability rights are not only civil rights, they’re human rights—the right to strive to achieve our full potential, whatever that is. As one of the testimonials on Nike’s Equality Campaign page phrased it: “we all deserve a starting line.”

Social Diversity in the Workplace

Now that we’ve learned about various types of diversity you will encounter in the workplace, let’s take a deeper dive into a few examples, and what the best actions would be in each scenario.

References

Annese, Lisa. “Practical Ways to Promote Religious Diversity in the Workplace.” Diversity Council Australia. December 01, 2016. Accessed April 22, 2019. https://www.dca.org.au/opinion-pieces/practical-ways-promote-religious-diversity-workplace.

“Coverage of Business/Private Employers.” US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Accessed April 22, 2019. https://www.eeoc.gov/employers/coverage_private.cfm.

Dyson, Eric. “Improving Racial and Ethnic Diversity in the Workplace.” PeopleScout. November 30, 2017. Accessed April 22, 2019. https://www.peoplescout.com/racial-and-ethnic-diversity-in-the-workplace/

“Sexual Orientation Discrimination.” Workplace Fairness. Accessed April 22, 2019. https://www.workplacefairness.org/sexual-orientation-discrimination.

Stainback, Kevin, Corre L. Robinson, and Donald Tomaskovic-Devey. “Race and Workplace Integration.” American Behavioral Scientist 48, no. 9 (May 1, 2005): 1200-228. doi:10.1177/0002764205274816.


  1. Burke, Alison. "10 facts about American women in the workforce." Brookings, 05 Dec 2017. Web. 26 June 2018.
  2. Bucher, Richard D. Diversity Consciousness Opening Our Minds to People, Cultures, and Opportunities. Pearson, 2015, p 130.
  3. Leonard, Bill. "Study Suggests Bias Against 'Black' Names On Resumes." SHRM. February 1, 2003. Accessed April 22, 2019. https://www.shrm.org/hr-today/news/hr-magazine/pages/0203hrnews2.aspx.
  4. Disclosing a disability: https://www.monster.com/career-advice/article/disclose-disability-on-resume