In the workplace, we treat managing diversity and fostering inclusion in ways that do little to build this capability across the workforce. The associated skills challenge both our biological tendencies – think unconscious biases – as well as our life-long patterns of social conditioning – think gender norms.
Yet we gloss over the difficulty, thinking a one-hour workshop or weekend diversity and inclusion event will somehow fix long-standing inequity issues. We charge those with the least power and influence, those representing the groups that confront obstacles related to their diversity, with carrying the load for driving change. We use language that is truly the opposite of creating an inclusive workplace.
Consider the popular phrase he gets it, typically referring to a white man. The comment is intended to be a compliment, implying this man understands the inequities diverse employees face, but it also underscores why we struggle to engage men in diversity efforts. The ‘he gets it’ framing of competence is problematic for several reasons.
It’s too simple: It reinforces the notion that there are two points on the continuum, mastery or complete lack of skill. The reality is men’s understanding of, and skill with, facilitating greater gender diversity (and other types as well) falls along a continuum. There are men who think they get it but their actions tell a different story, men who feel confused about the role of gender in the workplace so avoid it, men who understand gender issues deeply but aren’t sure how to respond, and men who are enthusiastic about applying what they’ve learned, and more. The point is, we over simplify an ability which, like most, requires continuous learning, practice, experimentation and more practice through time.
An apt metaphor for more effectively managing diversity and creating more inclusive work environments is building a muscle. We build our muscles through time, not in a one-shot visit to the gym, and if we stop working out, we begin to lose our muscle tone. Luckily, our efforts to strengthen our muscles benefit greatly from muscle memory so that getting back up to speed is easier and faster than starting from scratch. The investment of time and effort builds something that lasts but also requires ongoing effort.
It keeps men at a distance: The he gets it language sends the signal that there’s some kind of secret code, or piece of knowledge, required for being in the know with regard to diversity and inclusion. Hearing the he gets it language, often said with great emphasis, raises the clear and likely possibility that many men don’t get it. Thus, men choose to stay away because they don’t want to risk being the guy who says or does something that signals his lack of understanding.
It feels exclusionary, which is anathema to the whole notion of building inclusivity, creating a sense of belonging and allowing differing points of view. Many men, particularly white men, describe the feeling of being under a microscope or walking on eggshells.
There is a strange silver lining with regard to white men, in particular, experiencing the sense of pressure and being on edge with regard to gender competence. Feeling unfairly judged as well as pressure to ‘get it right,’ along with fearing confirming the stereotype that white men don’t get it, provides a powerful window into the experience of diverse employees who regularly experience that discomfort and stress.
Nonetheless, we want and need men to engage in diversity and inclusion work if we are to accelerate progress and drive deep and lasting change. References to men getting or not getting it do nothing but push men away.
It’s not just about men: Just as unconscious biases affect every one of us, so too is the need for all of us to continue learning and to be self-reflective when it comes to strengthening our ability to foster inclusivity and effectively manage diversity. It’s easy to have blind spots, and to assume you understand, when in reality there is so much that you fail to see, even about your own behaviors.
For example, the research whereby participants evaluate the resume of a fictitious candidate for a new position, and rate the male candidate more highly than the female candidate despite that the resumes are exactly the same (only the name has been changed), consistently shows that women too are biased toward the male candidate. And women who feel strongly about gender equality often fail to see the gender inequities men face at home when women dictate how their husbands and partners should parent.
Building greater competency with regard to diversity and inclusion requires humility more than anything else. There is a phenomenon known as the Dunning-Kruger effect, describing the tendency to overestimate one’s level of skill. A study of more than 4,000 leaders exploring leadership strength with regard to diversity and inclusion found this same effect, but with a twist.
As the graph illustrates, those leaders who are rated the worst at inclusiveness by those they work with – subordinates, peers, bosses – tend to overrate themselves as would be expected by Dunning-Kruger. However, the best leaders tend to judge themselves more harshly and underrate their own ability.
The perception that someone gets it when it comes to diversity and inclusion is problematic precisely because it invites complacency. There’s always more to learn and diversity issues are wrought with complexity and misunderstanding. Ongoing learning is what’s needed.
∞ ∞ ∞
Becoming adept at creating inclusive work cultures, managing diverse employees, and enabling teams to do their best work takes energy, time and practice similar to keeping the muscles of our bodies strong and flexible. We do a disservice by using language that doesn’t reflect the importance – and difficulty – of cultivating leaders who can skillfully confront the rampant workplace inequities that persist.