When you think of workplace diversity, what image comes to mind?
What Are the Important Dimensions of Workplace Diversity?
Perhaps it’s people of different racial or ethnic backgrounds, or perhaps an even balance of men and women?
That’s a good start, but there are so many other ways to think about diversity as well. In fact, in this tutorial we’re going to look at ten different dimensions of workplace diversity.
As a reminder, this is part 2 of our series on workplace diversity. In the previous tutorial, we looked at some of the key advantages of promoting diversity in your business.
The objective of today’s tutorial is to show you how you can think more broadly about diversity. By broadening the scope of your definition and being aware of more different types, you can ensure your workplace is truly fair and equal, and can realize the full benefits of diversity that we talked about in the previous tutorial.
So let’s look at each of the types of diversity in turn, with some examples of what they mean, how your business might need to change to accommodate different types of people, and how it could benefit as a result.
There’s lots of
research on the varying characteristics of different generations: Baby Boomers,
Generation X, Millennials, and so on.
While some of these
categories can be over-simplifications, it’s certainly true that people of
different ages tend to think differently and have very different experiences.
My father, for
example, was born during World War Two. His views are shaped by growing up in
an age of shortages and rationing, becoming an adult in the turbulent times of
the Sixties, struggling through the economic crises of the Seventies, and so
on. That’s very different from my own experience growing up in the 80s and 90s.
And my nephews, who have never known a world without the internet, smartphones
and social media, have yet another perspective.
As we saw in the last
tutorial, a key benefit of diversity is that employees with varying
perspectives are better at things like innovation and decision-making.
Having people of
different ages is a great way to achieve that. The younger employees can keep
you up-to-date with the latest technology and see possibilities that people
stuck in 20th-century models may not appreciate. And older employees can draw
on a much broader range of experiences, including their memories of all the
times that the “next big thing” has come crashing down.
So it’s worth looking
at the balance in your business. Do you have a good mix of ages among your employees?
If not, you could look at changing your hiring practices, perhaps using more
traditional venues like print ads and recruiters if you want more experience,
and newer ones like online forums and social media if you want to find younger
people. Also take an honest assessment of your workplace culture: is it too
stuck in the mud to interest young people, or too juvenile for the older crowd?
2. Race and Ethnicity
OK, let’s be clear:
race is a social construct, not a valid scientific category. The current
scientific consensus is that racial differences are very poor proxies for
people’s actual genetic diversity. They’re categories from an older, less
advanced time, when we saw that people looked different and arbitrarily
ascribed character traits to skin colours and hair types, often for the purpose
of asserting power over other groups.
But the lack of
scientific basis doesn’t mean that we should ignore race as a category. It is
an incredibly powerful social construct, and it affects people’s lives in
myriad different ways, such as:
(Note: These studies and statistics are from
the U.S., but of course racial disparities also exist in many other countries
around the world.)
Ethnicity is often
used as a synonym or even a euphemism for race, but its actual definition is
somewhat different—it places more emphasis on culture than biology. The way
people self-identify can be very complex, often encompassing multiple racial
and/or ethnic categories.
How does all of this
affect you? Well, McKinsey
research shows that companies with the most racial and ethnic diversity are
35% more likely to have above-average financial returns.
Want to know why? Take
a look at my previous tutorial on the benefits
of diversity for businesses:
So consider whether
your workplace reflects the racial and ethnic diversity of your customer base.
If it doesn’t, we’ll look at some ways to rectify that in future tutorials in
This is one of the
simplest categories. Roughly half of the people in the world are women. If
women don’t make up around half of your workforce, you need to examine why that
is and take action to achieve a better balance.
By the way, if you’re
thinking that women make up a smaller percentage of the labour force due to
their role in the family, in many countries that’s simply not the case any
more. In the U.S., for example, the labour force is 52.7% men
and 47.2% women—pretty close to half.
In some countries, of
course, things are different. A World
Bank report found that women face job restrictions in 100 of the 173
economies monitored, and there are 18 countries in which women can’t get a job
without their husband’s permission.
But even in countries
in which women’s roles are more restricted, business owners can still make the
choice to employ more women to the extent that the law allows. And in countries where women are willing and able to join your company, there really is no excuse.
Gender equality is not
just about representation either. It’s nothing to boast about if your business
employs a lot of women, but they’re mostly in junior positions or earning less
than men. Despite progress in recent decades, women still earn only 80
cents for every dollar earned by men in the U.S.—and large gender pay gaps
exist in many other
We’ll go into gender
equality in much more depth in the next tutorial.
4. Sexual Orientation
A person’s sexual orientation refers to:
enduring physical, romantic and/ or emotional attraction to members of the same
and/or opposite sex, including lesbian, gay, bisexual, and heterosexual
So it’s an inherently
personal matter, a matter of how you feel and whom you are attracted to. What
could it possibly have to do with business?
Actually, quite a lot.
Check out this Harvard
Business Review article detailing some of the research on the cost of
closeted employees—both to the employees themselves and to the companies they
work for. When people feel safe enough to express their sexual orientation,
they are more productive and achieve more in their careers. The strain of
keeping secrets, on the other hand, tends to hamper their progress and make
them more likely to leave the company.
So whatever your personal beliefs, it’s important for you as an employer to recognize that you have a responsibility to create a
workplace in which everyone feels safe to express their own identity. If you
do, your business will also benefit as a result.
in the workplace is a real problem. Consider this
experiment, in which researchers sent out 9,600 job applications with
résumés that were the same except for one detail: whether the person’s
experience was with a religious or non-religious student group.
The results? Résumés
that made no religious reference received 20% more favourable responses from
employers. Those mentioning a Muslim student group fared the worst, and the
other religions came somewhere in the middle.
The problem goes
beyond hiring practices. Does your workplace make allowances for religious
observances? Is there a place where people can pray or meditate, and can they
take the time away from work without being penalised? Does your dress code
allow people to wear items of clothing important to their faith? Do you take a
strong stand on discrimination and harassment?
With so many world
religions, each with their own practices, it can be hard to accommodate
everyone. But if you do, the payoffs
- Employees are less
likely to be looking for a new job.
- Employees are more
than twice as likely to say that they look forward to coming to work.
- Overall job
satisfaction is higher.
Is your workplace
inclusive of people with disabilities? There are a couple of different
dimensions to be aware of here.
The first is physical:
Does your workplace have the necessary accommodations for people with reduced
mobility? Do you provide the technology that some disabled people may need in
order to do their jobs, such as telephone headsets or screen readers and other
But the second aspect
is attitude, and there’s a long way to go there. A survey
by the UK charity Scope found that two-thirds of people feel uncomfortable
talking to disabled people, and over a third of people tend to think of
disabled people as not as productive as everyone else.
This has real
consequences in the workplace. found that:
“Over one in three
people show an unconscious bias against those with a disability, higher than
levels of bias on the basis of gender or race.”
As with many of the
other categories we’ve looked at, education is key. Inform yourself about the
challenges faced by disabled people as well as the contributions they can make,
and get training for your staff to ensure that they don’t repeat the patterns
of bias and incorrect assumptions that prevent so many disabled people from
doing the jobs they are capable of.
Since personality tests
like the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator first gained popularity in the 1960s,
employers have been obsessively testing candidates and employees—it’s estimated that more than 50 million people have taken Myers-Briggs.
may quibble over the validity of the buckets people are put into, the principle
is sound. Personalities are important in business, and getting a healthy mix is
Having a mix of
personalities is also a challenge, of course. It can lead to clashes and
conflicts. But sometimes, out of those clashes, new ideas or insights can form.
It gets to the heart of the main argument for diversity in general: Difference
can be hard to deal with, but it tends to lead to better outcomes than
uniformity and conformity.
So mix things up a little and enjoy the various contributions that all those different personalities can bring. It may just make your workplace a more fun and interesting place too!
8. Socioeconomic Status
Pretty much every society
has class divisions. They’re more pronounced in some countries than others, but
they exist almost everywhere.
People from different
socioeconomic backgrounds tend to have different attitudes and outlooks on life
as well. As with other forms of diversity, that can be both a challenge and a benefit
to your business.
Here’s an example from
article based on the book Hidden
Rules of Class at Work:
“Do your employees
understand the organization’s unspoken rules about money? Those from poverty
grew up with the notion that money was to be used, spent. Middle class norms
suggest that money is to be budgeted and managed closely. Wealth suggests that
one should conserve and invest money. What’s right? Each is a viable use for
money, but do your employees understand the views of your organization?”
Think about the
socioeconomic background of your employees. Do they come from similar or
diverse backgrounds? Will they challenge or reinforce existing beliefs? How can
you reach out to people from different backgrounds in your future hiring?
9. Education Level
This is a tricky one,
because qualifications are important for many jobs, and often you need people
who’ve attained a certain education level.
But I’ve also seen
plenty of job descriptions where a college degree was included as a
requirement, even though it really wasn’t necessary at all to do the job. For
example, a few years ago I used to work as a freelancer for banks and other
large firms, making their PowerPoint presentations look pretty. The only real
requirement for the job was being good at PowerPoint, but many companies
demanded a degree.
unnecessary qualifications, you are excluding people who may actually be ideal
for the job. You’re also making your workforce more homogeneous and less
So ask yourself what
education level is actually required to do the job. If a qualification is truly
necessary, then of course you can demand it. But if you’re using a college
degree or other educational requirement as a kind of proxy for the skills you
believe college graduates will have, then drop the education requirement and
list the skills you need instead.
requirements doesn’t have to mean dropping your standards. It means focusing
more accurately on what you need, and giving a chance to people who weren’t
able to pursue formal education but who may be the ideal new employees for your
10. Life Experience
This is a more general
category. I’ve included it because workplace diversity is most effective when
it’s less about the categories and more about the people and the diverse
insights and perspectives that they bring.
The nine dimensions
listed above capture the main types of diversity relevant to a business, but
what about employees with life experiences that are radically different from
those of the rest of your staff? They can still bring the benefit of new ideas
and challenging the status quo.
Personally, I know
that traveling extensively has taught me many new things about the world and
has made me more valuable as an employee than I was before. But all kinds of
experiences could give someone new insights—including experiences that people
might not list on a CV because they don’t seem relevant or productive.
So when you’re hiring
your next employee, don’t necessarily go for the person with the most relevant
qualifications or job experience (although of course those things are
important). Consider the whole person and what they can bring to your
In this tutorial, you’ve seen ten different ways of thinking about diversity. Now you know more about why diversity is important in the workplace and ten ares to focus on improving it in your business. If I’ve missed any categories that you think should be included for a more rounded
view of the subject, please let me know in the comments!
The goal of this
tutorial has been to encourage you to think more broadly about diversity. But
making your workforce more diverse has its challenges too. So in the next
tutorial in the series, we’ll zoom in on one particular aspect of diversity:
gender. We’ll look in detail at some steps you can take to promote gender
equality in your business. See you then!