What is Diversity? More Than Meets the Eye

Discussions about diversity and inclusion in businesses and institutions have been going on for decades — DiversityInc has been advocating for both since 1998. In 2020, as movements against racial injustice have demanded further reckoning, businesses across the country were challenged even more than ever to show a dedication to diversity beyond half-hearted window dressings. But this renewed push for change has also brought about the need for even further discussion on the fundamental principles of the movement itself. For starters, what exactly is diversity? Is it simply skin-deep or does it go further than what is immediately visible?

Diversity is the idea that a group of people who have different life experiences and backgrounds can work together and be regarded as equals. It’s an idea that benefits culture, community and the working world. As research has shown us over and over again, businesses that have diverse workforces have significantly more success than businesses that don’t.

The Importance of Racial, Ethnic and Gender Representation

DiversityInc was founded by Luke Visconti, a white man — and an Air Force veteran with a non-combat-related mobility impairment. From his headshot, one might not consider him to be “diverse.” But therein lies another issue: Individuals are not diverse; groups are. Diversity means that you might have cisgender white men on your team, along with a rainbow of races and ethnicities; a spectrum of genders and sexual orientations; as well as a range of abilities, ages and individuals with varying life experiences. Diversity is a mosaic, not a monolith. What matters is that all people from all cultures and walks of life are represented — that we are all heard, have a fair chance to succeed and everyone is treated fairly and equally in all that we do and hope to achieve.

Racial, ethnic and gender diversity — diversity you can see — is paramount in a society that systematically excludes and harms Black, Indigenous and other people of color from fair and equal opportunity, treatment and advancement. It’s also essential for women. Looking at these ideas solely within the workplace, there is still so much more work to be done. A 2020 Census report found that despite much discussion of the issue, little progress has actually been made in closing the racial and gender pay gap. White men still out-earn Black and Hispanic men as well as white, Black, Hispanic and Asian women. According to Equal Pay Today, an organization advocating for women’s pay parity, all U.S. women earn an average of 82 cents to the white man’s dollar. When broken down by race, those numbers become even more dismal. Black women earn 62 cents, Native American women earn 60 cents and Latina women earn 55 cents to every white, male dollar earned. Asian women make more than other groups but still less than white men at 90 cents.

A 2016 Pew survey reported that 21% of Black adults and 16% of Hispanic adults believed they were treated unfairly in hiring, pay or promotion because of their race or ethnicity. Just 4% of white adults say the same. And while 40% of Black respondents and 20% of Hispanic respondents said their race or ethnicity has made it harder for them to succeed in life, just 5% of white respondents agreed. In fact, 31% of white adults said their race or ethnicity had “eased the way toward the successes” they’ve achieved. Just how skewed are the numbers? Take a look at the 2020 Fortune 500, where white males account for 85.8% of all leadership positions.

The Visibility Factor

All forms of diversity are not immediately visible to the naked eye. This is a trap even the most well-meaning among us can fall into. While diversity in all areas is vital and crucial, it’s not simply a quota system. Placing a Black woman on a panel that otherwise consisted of all white men to check the imaginary “diversity box” isn’t empowerment — sometimes it can be considered tokenism.

In reality, diversity goes deeper than simply how we categorically look at a person and judge them based on their skin or hair or some other aspect of their appearance. Assuming certain people in a group don’t add to the diversity of their teams involves dismissing many forms of diversity you can’t discern from appearance. Worse yet, it could be a complete misunderstanding of what diversity actually means.

A glance can’t reveal whether someone is LGBTQ; a veteran; someone struggling with certain disabilities; whether someone grew up in poverty and is a first-generation college graduate; if someone is an immigrant; what a person’s religion or worldview might be; and much more. The list of ways diversity cannot be measured simply through visual judgments and ideas goes on.

Damage to the Hidden

Even though they may not look disadvantaged or challenged at first glance, people who represent dimensions of diversity that aren’t always noticeable to the naked eye still face numerous and sometimes dire circumstances in the working world.

People with disabilities, for example, make up 20% of the U.S. population. But within that group, 74% of those disabilities are invisible or not immediately apparent to outsiders. Even though 5 million people with disabilities in the U.S. have a college degree, only a quarter of those individuals are employed. The numbers are similarly bleak for veterans, another diverse category of people many may not consider diverse just by looking at them. More than 6% of American veterans faced unemployment last month as a result of COVID-19, much higher than the natural average for non-disabled individuals.

Things are just as grim within the LGBTQ community. A 2012 study showed that 16% of lesbian, gay and bisexual people lost a job due to their sexuality. Thirty-five percent of lesbian, gay and bisexual respondents reported having been harassed at work. Fifty-eight percent reported hearing derogatory comments about sexual orientation and/or gender identity in their workplaces. In 2015, 16% of transgender people said they’ve lost a job because of their gender identity alone.

Making a Change

For those of us who want to make a difference, allyship is also an essential tool in the fight for greater diversity in all areas. When some people are placed in positions of greater privilege or power than others, it is their duty to use that influence to act as advocates for others who have not been so fortunate. While we should never center our voices for groups we are not a part of, we can be the voices that support them — whether we come from diverse populations or not. This means having conversations about empowering Black women in rooms filled with white men. It means having conversations about empowering people with disabilities in rooms filled with able-bodied individuals. It means having conversations about empowering the LGBTQ community in rooms filled with people who are not LGBTQ.

Diversity isn’t something you can measure simply by looking at a photo, and it’s not something that will change or improve with the efforts or just one person doing work here or there. The needle won’t move unless everyone is pushing it. And straight, cisgender white men have just as much weight to push — if not more — than the rest of us.


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