The Importance of Embracing Diversity in the Workplace

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Whenever I walk into a department store, I can always find the beauty products I need – makeup, hair products for my straight blonde hair and Band-Aids for my fair skin. However, this isn’t the case for everyone. Growing up in the small, mostly homogeneous town of Tillamook, Ore., living without these things never crossed my mind until I took a sociology class in college, where we discussed racial, gender and economic inequities, and the topic of everyday conveniences, such as the simple act of finding a Band-Aid or makeup to match your skin tone, came up.

It’s not that I didn’t think racism existed, it’s just that I was oblivious to it because it was never in my face. The world had, up to that point, accommodated my whiteness in a way that did not force me to think about race. To put it bluntly, I was extremely naïve.

The sociology class opened my eyes to so many things, and I realized I had been suffering from a huge knowledge gap. That pushed me on a trajectory of learning more about different races and cultures. A few years later, I spent a summer in Accra, Ghana, where I interned at a television station. After graduating from college, I moved to Washington, D.C.

I’m fortunate to live in an area that is filled with diversity; people from all over the world come to the nation’s capital for a variety of reasons, often bringing with them their rich cultural traditions, including one of my favorites – food! I’m constantly thinking about my next meal, and living in D.C. has given me so much access to different cuisines and expanded my cooking repertoire.

During my 12 years of living here, I’ve benefited so much from the area’s diversity. In addition to improving my cooking skills, I often have spirited conversations with people with different opinions and experiences, who come from a variety of different races and backgrounds, and I always walk away more informed and smarter than I was before.

I seek diversity not just in my food and conversations, but in the books I read and the friends I keep. Exposure to diversity allows me to be informed and teaches me about the world outside of my immediate boundaries, and helps me become more empathetic, understanding and supportive of those around me. It’s also essential in the workplace.

Being exposed to diversity has given me an opportunity to learn about people who’ve had experiences drastically different from my own, but I’ve also witnessed incidents that prove racial and gender discrimination is still a huge problem in this country.

While exploring the topic of workplace discrimination with an African American co-worker, she shared the following experience: Prior to meeting with the mayor of her city, the CEO of her company asked her if she was going to keep her hair natural or straighten it to look more presentable.

This microaggression, transmitted through a subliminal message, is that her natural hair texture, which is inextricably linked to her racial identity, isn’t professional and that being in her natural state of existence wasn’t OK.

My coworker recalled another experience she had while giving a presentation, during which attendees let her know they were surprised by how articulate and intelligent she was. She said they were initially concerned when they saw her name, which they had deemed a “black name.”

Racism and gender quality are topics people don’t often want to discuss. It can be uncomfortable and painful, but ignoring it doesn’t make it go away. Furthermore, never having been discriminated against doesn’t mean discrimination doesn’t exist; it just means you’ve been lucky or simply oblivious.

And failing to address these types of issues in the workplace will eventually impact your organizations bottom line.

We’ve seen several high-profile companies recently that have made huge errors when it comes to this topic, thus emphasizing the importance of diversity in the workplace and the need for educating yourself about history, race, gender and everything in between.

Most recently, Gucci released an offensive (and ugly sweater) that resembled black face. Consumers, including many famous people, across the country have now been openly boycotting the company. Katie Perry made a similar mistake: releasing a pair of shoes that also resemble black face.

In a 2018 incident, Papa John’s Founder John Schnatter resigned after using the n-word during a conference call. Soon after, the Miami Marlins said it was suspending all business relations with the brand. In the last year, the company’s stocks have lost half their value, according to the Louisville Courier-Journal.

In 2017, Uber’s CEO resigned after Susan Fowler, a former Uber engineer, posted an in-depth blog post about the hostile work environment toward women at the company. In January 2018, several mutual funds dropped their estimates on the value of Uber, according to a Recode article.

Embracing diversity in the workplace leads to diverse perspectives and points of view. It means decisions aren’t just made by a homogenous group of people, thus better ensuring that disasters like the Gucci black face sweater don’t happen again. But it shouldn’t be up to minorities and women to be morality police. Employees need to proactively educate themselves on these things as well. If companies aren’t confident in their abilities to properly educate and train employees on these topics, they should hire an outside company that specializes in diversity training to do it for them.

A recent article by Real Business said it best:

“If everyone were the same, the world would be a boring place, and it’s important in business to always be progressing and innovating. Put simply, diversity equals creativity. If everyone on your team was from the same background, of a similar age or gender, they would likely have similar ways of thinking. Which is perfect for autonomy, but not for creativity.”

It continued, “A diverse workforce will bring different ideas and new ways of thinking to the table. They’ll be able to better serve your client or customer base. Members of staff that come from a range of backgrounds will have had different experiences, giving them a greater understanding of different points of views. This can be useful for empathizing or problem solving in various situations, offering more tailored support to clients or customers. What’s more, supporting diversity opens you up to a bigger talent pool. If you are recruiting with a strict set of criteria in mind, you could be losing out on talented candidates. By widening the search and embracing diversity, you could find your perfect recruit.”