One of the shared beliefs in D&I appears to be that issues from the past will be resolved with new values, generations and business approaches. Does this hope withstand reality and evidence checks?
The 20¦21>22>> Trilogy (part 2)
Power & privilege to set and enforce rules has been a critical focus for Diversity & Inclusion, in particular from the equity and belonging perspectives. Our new business environment with globalised labour markets, inter-cultural mind-sets and virtual connectedness across all kinds of borders seem to provide a new, levelled playing-field. Actually, I hear many optimistic claims that the ‘old’ structures and deficits will soon be overcome with, by and through the ‘new’ values and world views of younger generations and fresh business models.
However: what if this wonderful new base of equal access, free voices and safe spaces, swarm-monitored ethics and instant fact-checking options beard nasty pitfalls? I have experienced too many situations in recent years that raise severe questions about a natural, automatic evolution towards DEI. Actually, the world assumed such a continuous progress towards more diversity and inclusion from the 1990s until 2015-2016 when many gains were reversed. Hence, my concerns are not only based on current phenomena but also on long-term observations and experience.
As one example (and reminder) the Google Memo Case, which had been unimaginable until that moment, made headlines shortly after the election of Donald T.
This article discusses three problematic phenomena that create a combined divisive dynamic of individualised agendas that neither advances a (presumed) shared cause of D&I nor facilitates buy-in from (arguably) important stakeholders:
- MyRules! The possibility to invent new standards without regarding the current situation or how it was created over time
- MyNarrative! The possibility to combine selected facts or considerations into a (messaging & marketing) framework that serves individually set objectives
- MyDomination! The possibility to dismiss – or cancel – stakeholders or input through structural or communication tools
In each area, current dynamics around forming opinions play a role as does the assumed value of being different. These are discussed in two separate articles that complete this trilogy.
Reinventing D&I continues to be a need for many reasons: past experiences, new contexts, different stakeholders or increased expectations. In the past, creating change in D&I and more specifically in equity or non-discrimination occurred as a revolution (as a result of activism) and as an evolution (by adapting systems, influencing mind-sets or fostering new behaviours). Although often seen as competing approaches, both often contributed to improvements and in a few cases, we can even speak of a hand-in-hand approach. I feel very fortunate to have been part of both worlds and still today, the two souls are housed within my breast. At the same time, I am aware that general perceptions have changed over years.
“As a white male I am aware that today, I am often perceived as part of the privileged system from the past rather than the pace-maker that I have always aspired to be.”
I discuss part of this dynamic in the previous part of this trilogy, ’The (arguable) value of being different’, and in texts referenced in that feature
One great characteristic of our times and specifically of current younger generations is that they feel entitled, empowered and encouraged to choose their own approaches and go their own ways. This can-do attitude and greenfield thinking serve as a driver in generating new ideas and eventually solutions. The digital field provides thousands of great examples as do the areas of design, manufacturing, supply-chain or sustainability.
As DEI is an important value for the younger generations, we see numerous young, start-up initiatives in this field as well. They often reflect the described can-do attitude or intersect with digital or design ideas. So far, the new formats contribute in an important and impactful way to the ongoing need to reinvent D&I (mentioned above) and help us to (un)learn things in order to be able to progress.
This part of the (un)learning series on the BMW Foundation’s blog suggests 10 D&I items to revisit or unlearn
The article questions, among others, one characteristic that I observe in some of the new D&I initiatives. The claim that things done in the past were wrong, were based on false assumptions and/or implemented in a bad way. This assessment is not only simplistic and hence inappropriate, it also creates divisive or cannibalising forces. It can quickly lead to abolishing existing approaches altogether to restart from a clean sheet. On this clean sheet, MyRules! can then be set by the respective author, basically dismissing whatever exists.
The beauty and power of such thinking can be captivating. At the same time, its impact will often be polarising, as it divides the audience in fans and non-fans. Questioning the practicability or potential effects of a new approach can be called bad-mouthing. However, these questions are relevant if and when MyRules! are deliberately set to replace a former system. My activist soul totally sees the need for such replacements and my organisation development mind clearly demands a more connected approach that uses whatever exists as a resource for change, including radical change.
Unfortunately, I have already witnessed – in a short period of time – many examples where carefully created progress was destroyed and supportive stakeholders turned (back) into opponents as a reaction to intransigent bashing of the present and the past, and the hard-line proclaiming of new MyRules! They often come with MyNarrative! that puts a larger story around the new standards.
(Re)Framing contexts to dismantle existing biases is a key mechanism for D&I to point out change needs in systems. We find abundant examples for the power of providing different lines of reasoning both in traditional and overarching D&I fields, e.g. questioning defined leadership qualities instead of claiming that women struggle with top management jobs or questioning the set working language instead of claiming insufficient language skills of international talent etc.
The aim of such paradigm shifts is to show how different considerations and new ways to connect them will lead to new conclusions – and decisions. This creates traction in D&I within existing systems and often generates a from-the-margin-to-the-mainstream effect (i.e., a better situation for everyone starting from a particular focus. This, however, requires to introduce previously ignored aspects in an integrated way). The power of paradigm shifts and reframing in the D&I field is illustrated by many examples, including
- Competing framings for women in top management
- Implications of regional RacialEquity framings
- Drivers and blind spots in LGBT work
- Different perceptions of religious holidays and otherness
- Overlooked dynamics in D&I benefits for diverse teams
- Blind spots in the ‚traditional’ work/life discourse
- Why D&I targets do not solve the issue and can be potentially harmful
- Differentiated look at diverse leadership and the role of culture
One great characteristic of the new knowledge society is that facts and findings required to initiate paradigm shifts today are only a few clicks away. This has also created the general feeling that everyone has access to the same information and everybody’s input can have the same relevance. Meanwhile, expert knowledge, experience or contextualised expertise are under scrutiny.
In this context, people who feel passionate about something, say DEI, can go and search and read and evaluate studies, anecdotes, policy papers, good practices, checklists or trending topics. The collected items can then be combined to MyNarrative! that describes a story and framework – based on MyRules! – that seems to be stunningly consistent and can be forcefully communicated.
However, it is often unclear, at which moment a person felt well equipped with the insight gathered. As humans, we are guided by different, often conflicting drivers as we may look for confirming, easily digestible or for challenging information. From my critical, evidence-based D&I perspective, I perceive the average D&I MyNarrative! to be full of popular assumptions rather than a result of a thorough review or rigorous reassessment.
This article explores facts vs myths in D&I
While out-of-the-box thinking is needed, current examples of My Narrative! use a limited number of considerations to present a seemingly consistent and hence convincing framing for D&I issues that require a more complex response. Consequently, MyNarrative! often does not lead to the desired impacts and can even be harmful. They get implemented nonetheless through MyDomination!
Challenging the interpretative sovereignty of dominant, privileged or majority groups and ensuring a broader inclusion of aspects, assumptions and interpretations is another important approach of D&I. As it overlaps with power theory and has a strong role modelling component, we have been used to discuss this dynamic in a leadership or executive context. However, power dynamics and spheres of influence have changed enormously over time. In addition, D&I has become a household element in many corporate, societal and public context or communities.
Along with these new stakeholders and dynamics, I have noticed profound changes of the D&I discourse where new structures, cultures and authorities claim interpretative sovereignty. The following examples show how power (and privilege) today is used in D&I to perform MyDomination!
Special interest structures
Mostly newly formed D&I NGOs from local initiatives to national foundations or continental platforms that often focus on certain aspects and have established MyRules! and MyNarrative!. While the proclaimed goal of these initiatives is to create networks, amplify voices, facilitate dialogue or develop expertise, one frequent side effect is that they dominate one field, monopolise contacts, pool budgets and determine agendas.
This article reflects the growing landscape of initiatives vis-à-vis the impact that D&I work can have
Special interest influencers
Individuals who have, alongside their D&I profession, developed a large number of followers by publishing content, often based on MyRules! or MyNarrative!, that found wide agreement for various reasons. While the proclaimed goal of the communication is to share knowledge, raise awareness or offer solutions, one frequent side effect is that they dominate the messaging in and outside their area of expertise (e.g. special interest conferences, networks, communities or industry-specific contexts)
This article takes a broader look at various influences that have shaped the D&I landscape over recent years
The availability and accessibility of countless D&I resources that allow anyone to disregard information or dismiss stakeholders that provide unwanted perspectives or less likeable approaches or styles. While the proclaimed goal often is to find resources that fit a certain context, one frequent side effect is that people will relate to those with similar convictions and beliefs who implicitly or explicitly confirm what one already thinks or wants.
This article talks about the group-think and echo chamber effects in the D&I field
All three phenomena became significant over the past 15 years when the Internet established new standards for many social and business interactions and when new generations grew up. From my perspective, they all are incompatible with the basic ideas of D&I to value different perspectives, be open to different expertise and actively include different approaches to ensure best possible results. Instead, the different forms of MyDomination! create the kind of power structures that used to be criticised and cause divisiveness in a field that has always relied on togetherness.
No D&I automatism in the future
When I compare wide-spread reliance on young generations, start-ups and creative approaches with the dynamics described above and the vastly negative experiences I have explored in presumably open and inclusive, young, mostly tech workplaces, I struggle to share the optimism about the self-nurturing future of D&I or the enthusiasm about start-up type D&I initiatives. I also challenge the implicit or explicit devaluation of D&I progress to date.
This article talks about the first indicators that allowed to discuss D&I in tech in some depth
In addition to my business analyses above, I want to share additional anecdotal impressions: Looking at the average everyday life in an average European city that is dominated by the grown-up GenY, I do not find much D&I encouragement there: gender roles and norms appear more separated and pronounced than in previous generations and the mechanisms of MyRules! MyNarrative! MyDomination! can be found in newly created restaurants, advertising agencies and many other ‘start-up’ businesses and in the communication cultures around these.
This article provides more research-based information on new generation (in this case genY)
Regardless of whether you agree with the analyses presented so far, the multi-faceted backlash in many D&I areas over recent years and in several D&I areas shows that without carefully orchestrated interventions, we will not see renewed or further progress.
What we all need to do
While I have outlined the Future of D&I in several articles, the analysis of this ones directly leads to three recommendations – related to the three chapters:
- When your root analyses reveal systemic biases in ground rules, make a case for change that convinces key stakeholders. Investing energy in collaborative development will be rewarded with joint efforts on the shared D&I cause.
- When your pitch reveals weaknesses like outdated messaging or hazy rationales, check your ecosystems for possible connections and synergies.
- When you look for ways to advance your D&I work – or even try to identify your next level – make sure you deliberately step out of your established structures and networks.
As D&I experts, we should always apply the basic ideas of our work, including to rigorously revisit assumptions or routines and role model out-of-the-box-thinking, meritocracy and inclusion. In this way, the future for D&I will be as bright as we like to see and describe it.
Michael Stuber is The International D&I Engineer and founder of European Diversity Research & Consulting, the EMEA level D&I pioneer, and provider of insight-based, international and innovative DEI diagnostics, strategies and solutions. Visit his company website at www.european-diversity.com
Previous article of this trilogy: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/arguable-value-being-different-michael-stuber/
Following arcticle to complete this trilogy (forthcoming)