Diversity in Business: The Part we Aren't Talking About

     Growing up, my dad would give me sit-down serious talks about making good decisions and being a good person. One of the important lessons he bestowed on me was the disadvantages I would face as an African American woman in the world. He told me that being an African American man is hard, but being an African American woman would be even harder and that I would need to work really hard in school and work to be successful. This is very similar to the conversation many people of color are having with their kids. A particular level of priming is reinforced to children to help prepare them for the inequality that awaits them at the front door of adulthood. Admittedly, I didn't quite understand what my dad meant. At that time, my life was filled with sports, piano lessons, and carefree living. Fortunately, I hadn't been able to recognize the biases that people have that negatively impact women and people of color. It wasn't until I grew up and began working in corporate America that it became abundantly clear that there is an unknown force that I had to fight. A force that can't be identified or quantified. It can't be seen nor felt by all and any mention of its presence yields defensiveness, hostility, and denial.

     Diversity is on the agenda of every conference and the topic of every leadership meeting. How do we improve diversity? Where do we find diverse individuals? How do we increase inclusion? The list of questions regarding diversity are endless. Today's version of diversity covers, among many other things: gender, race/ethnicity, age, disability, sexual orientation, sexual identity, religion, and veteran status. Everyone fits nicely into these categories. According to statistical reports, people fit into only one of these categories at a time. We compare men to women, white people to people of color, and cis gender and straight to LGBTQ.

     Many leaders, consultants, and experts discuss solutions to increase the number of women in senior leadership positions or eliminate age discrimination or create an inclusive environment for the LGBTQ community. The problem is that these solutions are one-dimensional.

     The studies and research that we base our solutions on did not have diversity in mind. Most researchers, whose mission was to identify inconsistencies between men and women, gathered responses from white men and white women. After the numbers were crunched, researchers then apply those findings to all women. For example, there's been so much research to dispel the myth that the traits stereotypically assigned to women, such as kindness and compassion, are not the traits necessary to be great leaders. This line of research goes back to at least the early 2000s. It has come to light that the majority of the people participating in this research were white men and white women. Yet, we have taken the results of the research and applied it to men and women of all races, ages, and sexual orientations. This incorrectly assumes that white women and women of color have similar experiences.

What happens at the intersection of race and gender?
     What leaders aren't talking about, is intersectionality. Intersectionality is when a person falls into two or more minority or oppressive groups. Kimberle Crenshaw coined this term in 1989 and has completed extensive research in this area. An example of intersectionality is African American women, they fall into two groups: African American group and woman group. One of the biggest issues with intersectionality is that it can be difficult to determine which group can be attributed to failure. African American women often ask, "is it because I'm African American? Is it because I'm a woman? Could it be a little of both?" There's no magic answer, and that can be frustrating.

     It is time to begin thinking about intersectionality in the workplace. The more we focus on singular groups, the more people we exclude from the table. Just as women and African Americans bring unique experiences to the table, African American women bring another set of unique experiences that should be accounted for, lesbian white women bring another set of unique experiences, and disabled, gay men bring another set of unique experiences and so on.

It's impossible to account for every combination of people at the decision table, but the sooner we begin thinking outside of the singular groups, the sooner we can begin to truly understand the experiences people from multiple groups have that make them the right people to have at the table. 

About the author: Demetria is the Founder and CEO of Decide Diversity, a company focused on increasing the presence and effectiveness of women and minorities in the workplace, specifically in leadership positions. Demetria's experiences and education has energized her to take action and lead a new generation of leaders away from traditional stereotypes and self-inflicted limiting behaviors that prevent qualified people from reaching their highest potential.