Why diversity matters

Learn about the importance of diversity in the workplace from a young female in tech (me).

Without challenge, there is no change, and without change there is no long-term success.

To be successful, change through innovative thinking and decision making is inevitable. One way to stay innovative is by having a diverse team.

I have experienced being part of diverse, and not-so-diverse, teams throughout my educational and career development, and have seen the positive and negative repercussions on business failure or success resulting from the level of diversity within a team.

This post defines diversity, outlines the importance and challenges of diversity, as well as documents ways to create a thriving, diverse team.

 

What is diversity?

Diversity comes in all shapes and sizes; diversity can be found by educational background, sexual orientation, income level, religion opinions, values, geographical location, communication style, language, and much more.

In May, I attended the PODIM conference in Slovenia and spoke on a panel called, “Winning Team, Winning Company” which  focused on the importance of diversity in the workplace. 

When we kicked-off the discussion with a panel solely of women (a man did join the discussion later; there were supposed to be two men on the panel), we had to address the elephant in the room – how can a diversity panel only have women? It was simple, 

What makes us different, is not always visible to the naked eye.


Why does having a diverse team matter?

In teams without diversity, you’ll find little differentiation in opinion or thought. I’m sure you’ve heard the saying, “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.”

This quote relates to teams which have had little conflict in decision-making, which is why there is a tendency to hire those with similar opinion and thought; similar opinions simplify discussion around decisions.

That said, just because  decisions will be simplified, this does not necessarily mean they will be the right decisions. One of the greatest challenges that goes hand-in-hand with having a diverse team, is conflict.


My experience with diversity

To level set, I am a college-educated female and currently work at one of the top technology companies in the world. The companies and people in the following stories will remain anonymous; these stories are not about where or whom with these situations arose, but rather these stories help illustrate a few challenges of diversity.

I remember meeting two people working at a small company. After sitting down and asking a couple questions about their business, the man paused as if something was wrong and said,

“I’m sorry, when I heard [we were meeting], I was expecting to meet an older, white, man.”

There was a bit of an awkward pause – I truthfully didn’t know whether he was joking or not – so I laughed off the comment, and continued to ask questions about the business. As we continued our discussion, I continued to question whether he was indeed joking or not; when I provided business recommendations, even after sharing my educational and professional background to earn trust, there was a lot of push back.

A few days later when we met in person among a group of men and women, this person sought advice about his business problem from an old white man whom provided the same advice as I had days prior which he then agreed to.

Take-away 1: Cultural differences are not an excuse for cultural norms.

I shared my experience with a group of friends, and the following day after sharing my story, a friend pulled me aside and said,

“I’m so happy you shared that story. I see and hear things like this all the time, that I didn’t realize I had gotten so used to it. I stayed up all night thinking about it, and spoke with my mom about it the next day. I don’t like that I see this, and don’t say something – knowing how you felt, is not something we should accept as okay.”

In another situation, I was working with two men and a woman to meet a male and female business partner. After about 10 minutes into the conversation, the female business partner began speaking about the business and one of the men I was working with cut her off mid-sentence and began speaking over her, stating, “[we shouldn’t do that, we should do this].” The woman’s face looked white as a ghost when he cut her off and for the remainder of the three-hour meeting she did not speak; the men spoke with the men. 

This feeling of sexism was further augmented when – throughout the meeting – I noticed the male with which we were meeting made eye contact only when speaking with the other males at the table. While this example is of a small behavioral trait that can easily be brushed off, I felt it is important to note; there are cultural differences and some need to be understood in a manner of difference in cultural norms, but there is also a level of disrespect which cannot and should not be considered acceptable as a cultural norm and brushed off as if it is acceptable behavior.

Without respect for each other and the differences among us, we cannot be successful.


Take-away 2: Sexism can occur between the same sex, as well as the opposite sex

During a meeting, when seeking to understand business objectives and clarification, a female told me that “[this was none of my business and to just do the work].” I felt immediately disrespected as I felt I was inquiring about a business decision. I was further criticized by my comments and received feedback it was not my place to ask questions — and it was my place to do the work. I felt completely disrespected and questioned why I was hired at a company where I was not allowed to bring my knowledge to a team to help make better decisions. A very similar situation occurred at a different company with a male counterpart. 

Always seek [and work] to get your team on the page with your strategy and strategic goals, otherwise they will not respect you as a peer or as a leader. Effective leaders understand each person’s strengths, weaknesses, and differences and encourages and supports conflicting points-of-view.

While creating a thriving, diverse team likely seems – understandably – impossible and challenging, it is not.

 

5 Ways to create and support a thriving, diverse team

1. Be open minded; listen
As expected, when people come together with differing opinions, there is conflict. While you may be stubborn in your ideas, it’s important to make sure others feel respected and heard. 

Carolyn N. Spencer of Amazon promotes diversity in her environment by supporting people to openly express their thoughts and feelings.“This is the only way to truly grow – personally and in business.” Diversity Matters

Take the time to listen to the other person’s point of view, and allow them to explain their reasoning for wanting to move forward with the recommendation they suggested. By listening, you may realize they had thought of something you did not.

2. Speak up; respectfully challenge others’ point of view

This one is not easy; in moments we can all get emotionally responsive. It’s important to step back, asses the situation and how your comments may come off and adjust your body tone and behavior accordingly.

If you disagree with someone, or want to share your point of view and know it will be controversial – pose your idea in the form of a question – lead the person there by helping them think differently.

Example: “I am sure you have already thought about XYZ, but XYZ.”

This type of conversation comes across less judgmental and threatening, eliminating potential tension between you and the other person speaking.

3. Be aware of acceptable and non-acceptable cultural differences
While we are diverse in many ways, cultural differences can impact communication styles and therefore impact interpretation of the level of respect received.

Be cognizant and educate yourself on what cultural differences exist around you. Note and communicate if something makes you feel uncomfortable or disrespected; there could be a simple misunderstanding.

4.Give feedback, and teach others to encourage diversity
Without acknowledging that teams are diverse, and therefore will run into situations where people disagree and a decision is made which others do not support or understand.

If people do not support or understand why a decision was made, then you cannot be a successful leader or have a successful team.

5. Work with each other to get the best result
At the end of the day, your goal is to be successful. If in the face of differing opinions and stagnant conversation, find a place of agreement or way to make a decision.

For example, if your business replies on customers to purchase products, then you pick whichever is the best decision for your customer.

Summary

At the end of the day, it’s most important for everyone to acknowledge that there is bias in the workplace; the worst thing you can do as a company is pretend like there is no discrimination; while we do not encourage or support it, often times discrimination is sub-conscious.

In simplest form, every company should have mandatory diversity training. While we can’t control people’s background or biases and beliefs, we can however encourage and have low tolerance for disrespect. By creating a mandatory diversity training at work, you acknowledge there can be bias in the workplace but most importantly how to address or escalate inappropriate behavior or respect between others.

Diversity drives change. Without change there is stagnation and little-to-no innovation. Support diversity in your workplace to drive business success.

For more discussion and inspiration on diversity, check out this Ted Talk by Janet Stovall called, “How to get serious about diversity and including in the workplace.”

 

Disclaimer: This post does not reflect the views of opinions of my employer, Amazon, the PODIM conference, or SwissContact Entrepreneur in Residence (SwissEP) program. Copyright, Carolyn N. Spencer.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *