Diversity, Inclusion, and Intersectionality

Author: Michelle Russell       

How can we distinguish between those three goals for the best possible outcome at business events?

I’ve wanted to interview attorney Paulette Brown ever since I learned that she had been named the first black woman president of American Bar Association (ABA) in 2015, and I was delighted to finally have the opportunity this month to learn about the important work she is doing in implicit bias training.

I spoke to Paulette right after the Academy Awards had aired and actress Frances McDormand had made an impassioned plea to give women more of a voice in the film industry, and for actors to include inclusion riders in their contracts.

I asked Paulette if she thought this might be something of a turning point in the movement toward inclusivity. Paulette had listened closely to her speech, she told me, and what she heard was empowerment for women, not women of color. And when most people think about women, she said, they default to white women. (Yep, sounds like implicit bias at work.)

It reinforced for me that inclusion and diversity are not one and the same. Being inclusive means that you encourage diversity — of thought, background, culture, beliefs, age, etc., right? But that’s just step one. I recently interviewed Rebecca Ray, Ph.D., an executive vice president at the Conference Board, and she provided me with a fresh perspective.

A recent Conference Board study of global CEOs found that they were concerned about building an inclusive culture, Rebecca said. Research has shown that the more inclusive an organization, the more innovative they tend to be.

But Rebecca said there’s a shift taking place in organizations — “generally away from thinking about this solely as diversity, which is a focus on how we are different, versus an evolution toward inclusion, which is what we have in common. While we appreciate the differences, where can we find common ground?”

That approach is manifesting itself, she said, in some companies moving away from employee resource groups organized around common backgrounds, such as Hispanics or military veterans. “As we become more aware of the different lenses through which people see the world,” Rebecca said, “we realize how much intersectionality there is, and it’s more difficult for those employee resource groups to find their footing.”

As an example, Rebecca said, which group would a Hispanic woman who is a military vet returning to the workplace belong to? Plus, she pointed out, we also have people who are increasingly of blended races and ethnic groups.

Events are uniquely positioned to be both diverse and inclusive — bringing together as much diversity of thought and backgrounds as possible, while finding common ground to move their industries or professions forward.

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