Diversity FAQ’s 20: Should we change the term ‘diversity’ to something else?


“Can a Leopard change its spots”? Jeremiah 13:23

I think it is fair to say that in my professional career thus far, there is one single term that tends to cause the most ‘discomfort’ and ‘uneasiness’ when raised for discussion: the term ‘diversity’. Indeed, when at client meetings and engagements I have introduced myself as a ‘diversity and talent management consultant’, I often notice the sharp intake of breathe that tends to follow – as the first part of my job title (note not the second part) is taken in and digested. And this experience appears not to just be mine. It was only last week a business partner suggested that he might consider changing the name of his business, removing the word ‘diversity’ as according to him, it might constitute the reasons for the reduced client engagement currently being experienced.

Isn’t it paradoxical that that which is at the very essence of who we are as human beings, is at one and the same time, that which gives us the most ‘discomfort’ and ‘uneasiness’??! My Mother once said to me: “You will only find out what true love is Jude when you have a child and become a parent. That is when you’ll realise that true love is also intense pain”.

So, what is it about ‘diversity’ that rubs us up the wrong way such that some advocate for the term to be changed? Is it the statements below which are often provided as key reasons?

  • The compliance driven approach of equality legislation which has created the impression that diversity is about ‘box-ticking’
  • The emphasis on particular ‘strands’ or ‘protected characteristics’ assists create the air of ‘exclusivity’ rather than ‘inclusivity’
  • The politically correct approach taken by governments, equality watch dogs and equality experts who have consistently pitched diversity to be about ‘minorities’ without proactively recognising and engaging the needs of ‘the majority’
  • The focus on policy and the stick of compliance by equality practitioners effectively assured that diversity was positioned outside the mainstream of organisational functions, and therefore not recognised as strategically important.
  • The implicit expectation that in order to be a diversity consultant, the prerequisite is that one is either a woman, black, has a disability, is gay or has a ‘vested interest’ in issues dealing with ‘the disadvantaged’
  • The inherent fear of ‘difference’, ‘culture change’ and the moral call to individual responsibility

A short trip down memory lane may suffice here:

The term ‘diversity’ comes from the Latin ‘diversitas’ interpreted as “the quality of being diverse” from as far back as the 14th century. However, even at the time, the term created some controversy as it had a further ‘edge’ to its fullest interpretation. For it was also interpreted as meaning “unique feature”, “oddness”, going as far as being synonymous with “wickedness”, and even “perversity”. Indeed, the famous 14th century poet, Chaucer, interpreted “diversite” as a variant form based on dialectic differences arising out of his fear of attempts to translate his poems into other languages – something he did not want to happen as he believed it would negatively impact the original meaning of his poems! Indeed, for him, “change and diversity” were enemies to avoid…in this specific sense.

But it wasn’t only society that struggled with the term. In the medieval period, the Church controlled state had immense difficulties explaining ‘the intricacies of diversity’ in the Christian doctrine of the ‘One God’ – or the ‘Three in One’ controversial dogmatic teaching. Referred to as the ‘Trinitarian controversies’, resolving the question of diversity in the ‘God-head’ began as far back as the 2nd century, causing uneasiness all the way to the Reformation in the 16th century, through to the age of reason, otherwise known as the Enlightenment period.

Indeed, it is interesting that renowned and respected thinkers like John Locke, an 18th century British philosopher who is known to have influenced the fundamentals of the American constitution, thought that diversity was so intricate and fundamental to human nature that human beings were simply and literally a series of distinct diverse events and thought processes linked together by what he called ‘consciousness’.

And still the story of the term continues…

So, viewed from a historical lens, the ‘issues’ that the term ‘diversity’ has created are not unknown. They are a fundamental part of human history and have been around for a long time in varying shapes and forms. Indeed, I think that these ‘issues’ are only symptomatic of the inherent challenge we face as human beings who live with the reality of difference – imposed from within ourselves as well as through our interaction with others. Being able to positively manage difference or what I call the ‘dialectic of opposites’ in all aspects of societal life (including the workplace, etc) in such a way as to strike a balance or equilibrium, requires a conscientious response that is all about respecting individuality and promoting humanity.

I have been watching ‘Big Brother’ on Channel 5 with interest – and unashamedly so! I particularly enjoy ‘Nomination Days’. Housemates always tend to nominate someone to leave the house they either have not taken time to get to know, or have not had meaningful interactions with – and within this context tend to slate the nominated person based on assumptions of their personality, etc. Fast-forward a week later, I do find it interesting that when nominations come round again, and at which point they have engaged with the housemate they hadn’t previously engaged, not only is the person in question not nominated but the views expressed of them change to positive glowing ones.

It is not the term diversity that needs changing; it is our perception and understanding of it. Diversity is what we are – its stems directly from our humanity and we are all necessarily ‘caught up’ in it. Its paradoxical nature points to a whole range of unforeseen and unperceived opportunities and possibilities which are attainable (in the workplace – and beyond) if, and only if, the paradox – that is the double edged sword – is wielded carefully and successfully toward productive and competitive business benefits.

Should we change the term ‘diversity’ to something else? Absolutely not, I can hear myself scream! It is what it is. We should embrace it for what it is…can a Leopard change is spots??

Jude-Martin is Director of Diversity is…a consultancy focused on providing a fresh and innovative approach to diversity through the provision of services covering Strategy, Assessment, and Development for ensuring effective people management in the 21st century global business context.

For more information contact: www.diversity-is.com judemartin1st@yahoo.co.uk or call 07738427180

13 Comments

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13 responses to “Diversity FAQ’s 20: Should we change the term ‘diversity’ to something else?

  1. It’s not a word I like very much…but not sure what else one could safely substitute.

    Diversity is much more than skin color, age, gender or ethnicity. It’s also the range of experiences you bring to your life. I’m a Caucasian female, 54, born and raised in Canada. I look as white-bread as possible. But I’m married to a Hispanic man, have lived in five countries, speak two foreign languages…and bring some sorts of knowledge you’d have to dig a little deeper to even discover.

    • Dear Joel,

      Thank you for your comments and I appreciate your honest thinking on the subject.

      What an interesting background you have. Indeed, diversity sits very well within your ‘context’ and definately should not be a word you are feel uncomfortable about – but celebratedt!

      Kindest

      Jude-Martin

  2. Congratulations! Jude Martin
    You reflection on the sensitive subject of diversity or cultural diversity is very interesting to me when I consider that uniqueness or oddness in individual or group characteristics is not naturally reversible. Yes! Indeed issues of diversity can become as embarrassing as the challenge facing a deer to see a leopard neighboring its territory.
    However, the bible saying you quoted from Jeremiah does not sound convincing enough when I can verify that a leopard can often seek to change its preying spots. It can move from the mountain to the plain and to the forest as it follows its natural impulse. Therefore, I would counter the bible saying by stating that a leopard can change its spots, but cannot change or shed its skin, and its natural behavior.
    Thank you! For the good article Mr Martin.
    Best regards of
    Joseph I-G. Janvier, B.A., M.S.
    Bilingual/bicultural French-English-Haitian Creole Medical Interpreter
    Adjunct Faculty- Instructor of Cultural Diversity Studies, IL USA

    http://www.linkedin.com/in/josephjanvier

    • Hi Joseph,

      Thank you for your kind comment and happy to know you found the article of interest.

      I must however disagree re the analogy of the leopard: For whilst the leopard might be able to camoflage its spots as it moves from territory to territory, it does not in fact change them. Leopards will always be spotted animals, just as we human beings will always ‘carry’ with us our individual and identifiable ‘symptoms’ of our diversity – which as you are right to point out, is not something we should be embarrassed about for it is within our identities that our talents and skills are better harnessed and developed for the benefit of the organisation.

      Kindest

      Jude-Martin

      • Hi Jude
        Isn’t it amazing is how we sometime read the same sentence differently. I did frankly interpret the word “spot” as a place, a position, a geographic location. I never dreamed of it as a mark or a stain, a feature on a skin. Thanks for the specs.
        Kindly,
        Joseph Janvier

  3. Hi Jude
    Isn’t it amazing how we sometime read things differently? I did frankly interpret the word “spot” as a place, a position, a geographic location. I never dreamed of it as a mark or a stain, a feature on a skin. Culture wise I am not good at differentiating wild cat when they called them Puma, Leopard, Jaguar, or Panther. I can be more accurate in spotting a lion or a tiger. But guest what? There are no such wild animals in the country where I was born. Only a zoo or a TV documentary can help me out of my blue. And indeed yesterday I saw the image of a black Leopard that was saved among those killed in Ohio recently. Thanks for the specs.
    Kindly,
    Joseph J

    • Hi Joseph,

      Apologies for the delayed response to this – and I appreciate your comments.

      I actually saw a leopard whilst in the safari in Kenya a couple of years ago – they are really beautiful animals.

      kind regards

      Jude-Martin

  4. As referenced above, I think the word Diversity, by itself, really suffers from it’s transformation from Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action (EO & AA.) I don’t think we need to change the word, but I do think we need to create a ‘Value’ tagline that includes the word. What’s missing are the stories and legends of how the existence, presence and application of Diversity fixes problems and fuels innovation, I am a “Problem Solver” (and it’s not just a “Guy” thing,) and my introduction to a productive application of Diversity came in a “Working Woman” magazine article in the early 90’s that exposed me to the power of diversity of thought. In the article, they gave an example of how children from different countries might answer the same question because of their diverse perspective. The question was…”Three birds are sitting in tree. If you throw a rock and hit one, how many are left?” The article indicated that Western children would give an answer of “two,” while a child from the East or from Africa, tend to answer “Zero, because the other two would fly away” At this point I realized how important diversity of thought was for problem solving where we can create awesome and faster solutions with diverse perspectives. I don’t think we need to change the word, but we do need to tell the stories and create the legends that inspire people to embrace the real Power of Diversity…This is coming from a Black guy that spent 32 years in IBM. Thanks for raising this discussion!

    • Dear Raymond,

      Many thanks for your comments and taking time to note what are some very interesting points.

      I do agree. The name ‘Diversity’ should not be changed at all. It however does need ‘liberating’ from the unfortunate stereotypes and short-term thinking that tends to surround it – derived from its roots as an equality driven formula for attempting the creation of a minority ‘equilibrium’ in the workplace.I think you are absolutely right to suggest that we do not tell enough positive stories of how and where diversity has ‘succeded’. And it is interesting that you worked for IBM, for as referenced in the latest publicaton: “Where should diversity ‘sit’ strategically in an organisation?”, I alluded to IBM as a particular case study where diversity was at the heart of the positive change and successes lead by Lou Gerstner in the 90’s. IBM proactively engaged a varied number of ‘communities’ and ‘groups’ using its workforce diversity to leverage and build relationships such that they were better strategically prepared to manage the ‘particularities’ of cultural diversity as in the responses provided to the story of “The 3 birds” – am sure you know more about the IBM story more than I do.

      An absolute pleasure dialoguing Raymond!

      Jude-Martin

      • Thanks Jude, Although I tribute a lot to IBM’s turnaround to Lou Gerstner in the early 90’s, I think IBM’s global diversity strategy and vision came out of the work of Ted Childs, and IBM HR Exec., who had the courage to fight the battles to convince IBM Executive Leadership to adopt a Global Diversity Strategy as part of a philosophy of building competitive advantage. A major component to the strategy was for us, as managers, to educate our employees with respect to who really paid their salaries (our customers) and make employees aware of the billions of dollars that different groups spent on Information Technology products and services in our industry. Ted’s organization provided us with very effective tools to deliver this message via frank, business conversations. For example, if you mistreat African Americans or people from the Gay, Lesbian, Transgender community, for example, you are only mistreating your self when you consider these demographic groups may control X billion dollars of I/T purchasing power. I had a predominantly White team in a southern state, and when I gave them these numbers and told them that “I am not here to change your philosophy, but you need to understand that while you are representing me and my company, EVERYBODY GETS APPROPRIATE RESPECT! And, remember that YOUR inappropriate behavior negatively affects EVERYBODY’s POCKET!” This group ended up being one of my BEST Teams in 32 years! This discussion also inspired them to keep each other in check. I will admit that there were probably not a lot of my peers that handled these situations in this way with these tools, This was my particular application of the Diversity data and tools I was given, but it was one of my most memorable and powerful experiences during my career, with the greatest positive outcomes. By the way, I think that Ted Childs was the father of the “Constituency Group” strategy, where we built online communities for like groups to collaborate that had unique things like, race, gender and sexual preference in common. I know that this is only one part of the vast category of Diversity and inclusion, but I thought it was relevant. Thanks

      • Ray, what a great response, and one derived from practical experience.

        You are absolutely right about Ted Child’s impact on driving the strategy through IBM. I do remember the Harvard Business Review article “diversity as strategy” crediting him with a great deal of influence. Ultimately, for me, the learning point here is that things can happen when leadership from the very top provide clear steer and buy-in. Indeed, the buy-in, it seems to me enabled your positive experience if driving diversity as a business enabler predicated on the siple value of respect.

        Great comments and always good to hear from an ‘insider’.

        Are you on Skype? It would be fantastic to have further conversations.

        Kindest

        Jude-Martin

  5. HRWishik

    Hi Jude: I just found your blog so am responding to this prior post quite late. In the US there is a narrow mindset or paradigm, except in a few organizations like IBM, stuck around the word “diversity”, even as it has been more recently paired with the word “inclusion.” This mindset/paradigm that diversity is only about the workforce (not the entire business endeavor), is only HR’s job, is primarily or only about race and gender or a slightly longer but still too narrow list of differences, and that it is a problem to be managed. In an effort to move people out of that mindset or paradigm, my colleague Martin N. Davidson and I have worked with clients to reframe their thinking by using the language of and a model about “leveraging difference.” Martin’s new book, in which I co-authored three chapters, explores this approach in depth. You might be interested in looking at it. Berrett-Koehler Business just published it. The title is “The End of Diversity as We Know It: Why Diversity Efforts Fail and How Leveraging Difference Can Succeed.”

    • Hi,

      Many thanks for your comment which I found very interesting.

      The task in organisations is to effectively influence leadership to drive a change in thinking on strategic diversity and the competitive advantage it brings to the business through effective workforce management. This will enable more organisations to take note of, and learn from the positive lessons of IBM – in the US as well as all over the corporate world.

      Sounds like an interesting book and I’d be interested to read the chapters you co-authored. I’ll have a look at it. Leveraging difference is key to mainstreaming diversity as strategy within the business. Indeed, I wrote an article entitled “Diversity: Same or Difference?”. Have a look. Would be good to know your thoughts.

      kindest regards,

      Jude-Martin

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