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What Are the Important Dimensions of Workplace Diversity?

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This post is part of a series called How to Improve Diversity in Your Business (Essential Guide).
10 Key Advantages of Promoting Diversity in Your Business
How to Achieve Gender Equality in Your Business

When you think of workplace diversity, what image comes to mind?

Perhaps it’s people of different racial or ethnic backgrounds, or perhaps an even balance of men and women?

That’s a good start, but there are so many other ways to think about diversity as well. In fact, in this tutorial we’re going to look at ten different dimensions of workplace diversity.

As a reminder, this is part 2 of our series on workplace diversity. In the previous tutorial, we looked at some of the key advantages of promoting diversity in your business.

The objective of today’s tutorial is to show you how you can think more broadly about diversity. By broadening the scope of your definition and being aware of more different types, you can ensure your workplace is truly fair and equal, and can realize the full benefits of diversity that we talked about in the previous tutorial.

So let’s look at each of the types of diversity in turn, with some examples of what they mean, how your business might need to change to accommodate different types of people, and how it could benefit as a result.

Importance of diversity in the workplace
How diverse is your workplace? What dimensions could you improve? (photo source)

1. Age

There’s lots of research on the varying characteristics of different generations: Baby Boomers, Generation X, Millennials, and so on.

While some of these categories can be over-simplifications, it’s certainly true that people of different ages tend to think differently and have very different experiences.

My father, for example, was born during World War Two. His views are shaped by growing up in an age of shortages and rationing, becoming an adult in the turbulent times of the Sixties, struggling through the economic crises of the Seventies, and so on. That’s very different from my own experience growing up in the 80s and 90s. And my nephews, who have never known a world without the internet, smartphones and social media, have yet another perspective.

As we saw in the last tutorial, a key benefit of diversity is that employees with varying perspectives are better at things like innovation and decision-making.

Having people of different ages is a great way to achieve that. The younger employees can keep you up-to-date with the latest technology and see possibilities that people stuck in 20th-century models may not appreciate. And older employees can draw on a much broader range of experiences, including their memories of all the times that the “next big thing” has come crashing down.

So it’s worth looking at the balance in your business. Do you have a good mix of ages among your employees? If not, you could look at changing your hiring practices, perhaps using more traditional venues like print ads and recruiters if you want more experience, and newer ones like online forums and social media if you want to find younger people. Also take an honest assessment of your workplace culture: is it too stuck in the mud to interest young people, or too juvenile for the older crowd?

2. Race and Ethnicity

OK, let’s be clear: race is a social construct, not a valid scientific category. The current scientific consensus is that racial differences are very poor proxies for people’s actual genetic diversity. They’re categories from an older, less advanced time, when we saw that people looked different and arbitrarily ascribed character traits to skin colours and hair types, often for the purpose of asserting power over other groups.

But the lack of scientific basis doesn’t mean that we should ignore race as a category. It is an incredibly powerful social construct, and it affects people’s lives in myriad different ways, such as:

(Note: These studies and statistics are from the U.S., but of course racial disparities also exist in many other countries around the world.)

Ethnicity is often used as a synonym or even a euphemism for race, but its actual definition is somewhat different—it places more emphasis on culture than biology. The way people self-identify can be very complex, often encompassing multiple racial and/or ethnic categories.

How does all of this affect you? Well, McKinsey research shows that companies with the most racial and ethnic diversity are 35% more likely to have above-average financial returns.

Want to know why? Take a look at my previous tutorial on the benefits of diversity for businesses:

So consider whether your workplace reflects the racial and ethnic diversity of your customer base. If it doesn’t, we’ll look at some ways to rectify that in future tutorials in this series.

3. Gender

This is one of the simplest categories. Roughly half of the people in the world are women. If women don’t make up around half of your workforce, you need to examine why that is and take action to achieve a better balance.

By the way, if you’re thinking that women make up a smaller percentage of the labour force due to their role in the family, in many countries that’s simply not the case any more. In the U.S., for example, the labour force is 52.7% men and 47.2% women—pretty close to half.

In some countries, of course, things are different. A World Bank report found that women face job restrictions in 100 of the 173 economies monitored, and there are 18 countries in which women can’t get a job without their husband’s permission. 

But even in countries in which women’s roles are more restricted, business owners can still make the choice to employ more women to the extent that the law allows. And in countries where women are willing and able to join your company, there really is no excuse.

Gender equality is not just about representation either. It’s nothing to boast about if your business employs a lot of women, but they’re mostly in junior positions or earning less than men. Despite progress in recent decades, women still earn only 80 cents for every dollar earned by men in the U.S.—and large gender pay gaps exist in many other countries.

We’ll go into gender equality in much more depth in the next tutorial.

4. Sexual Orientation

A person’s sexual orientation refers to:

"an individual's enduring physical, romantic and/ or emotional attraction to members of the same and/or opposite sex, including lesbian, gay, bisexual, and heterosexual (straight) orientations"

So it’s an inherently personal matter, a matter of how you feel and whom you are attracted to. What could it possibly have to do with business?

Actually, quite a lot. Check out this Harvard Business Review article detailing some of the research on the cost of closeted employees—both to the employees themselves and to the companies they work for. When people feel safe enough to express their sexual orientation, they are more productive and achieve more in their careers. The strain of keeping secrets, on the other hand, tends to hamper their progress and make them more likely to leave the company.

So whatever your personal beliefs, it's important for you as an employer to recognize that you have a responsibility to create a workplace in which everyone feels safe to express their own identity. If you do, your business will also benefit as a result.

5. Religion

Religious discrimination in the workplace is a real problem. Consider this experiment, in which researchers sent out 9,600 job applications with résumés that were the same except for one detail: whether the person’s experience was with a religious or non-religious student group.

The results? Résumés that made no religious reference received 20% more favourable responses from employers. Those mentioning a Muslim student group fared the worst, and the other religions came somewhere in the middle.

The problem goes beyond hiring practices. Does your workplace make allowances for religious observances? Is there a place where people can pray or meditate, and can they take the time away from work without being penalised? Does your dress code allow people to wear items of clothing important to their faith? Do you take a strong stand on discrimination and harassment?

With so many world religions, each with their own practices, it can be hard to accommodate everyone. But if you do, the payoffs can include:

  • Employees are less likely to be looking for a new job.
  • Employees are more than twice as likely to say that they look forward to coming to work.
  • Overall job satisfaction is higher.

6. Disability

Is your workplace inclusive of people with disabilities? There are a couple of different dimensions to be aware of here.

The first is physical: Does your workplace have the necessary accommodations for people with reduced mobility? Do you provide the technology that some disabled people may need in order to do their jobs, such as telephone headsets or screen readers and other computer software?

But the second aspect is attitude, and there’s a long way to go there. A survey by the UK charity Scope found that two-thirds of people feel uncomfortable talking to disabled people, and over a third of people tend to think of disabled people as not as productive as everyone else.

This has real consequences in the workplace. Research by the Employers Network for Equality & Inclusion found that:

"Over one in three people show an unconscious bias against those with a disability, higher than levels of bias on the basis of gender or race."

As with many of the other categories we’ve looked at, education is key. Inform yourself about the challenges faced by disabled people as well as the contributions they can make, and get training for your staff to ensure that they don’t repeat the patterns of bias and incorrect assumptions that prevent so many disabled people from doing the jobs they are capable of.

7. Personality

Since personality tests like the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator first gained popularity in the 1960s, employers have been obsessively testing candidates and employees—it’s estimated that more than 50 million people have taken Myers-Briggs.

While psychologists may quibble over the validity of the buckets people are put into, the principle is sound. Personalities are important in business, and getting a healthy mix is beneficial.

Having a mix of personalities is also a challenge, of course. It can lead to clashes and conflicts. But sometimes, out of those clashes, new ideas or insights can form. It gets to the heart of the main argument for diversity in general: Difference can be hard to deal with, but it tends to lead to better outcomes than uniformity and conformity. 

So mix things up a little and enjoy the various contributions that all those different personalities can bring. It may just make your workplace a more fun and interesting place too!

8. Socioeconomic Status

Pretty much every society has class divisions. They’re more pronounced in some countries than others, but they exist almost everywhere.

People from different socioeconomic backgrounds tend to have different attitudes and outlooks on life as well. As with other forms of diversity, that can be both a challenge and a benefit to your business.

Here’s an example from an article based on the book Hidden Rules of Class at Work:

"Do your employees understand the organization’s unspoken rules about money? Those from poverty grew up with the notion that money was to be used, spent. Middle class norms suggest that money is to be budgeted and managed closely. Wealth suggests that one should conserve and invest money. What’s right? Each is a viable use for money, but do your employees understand the views of your organization?"

Think about the socioeconomic background of your employees. Do they come from similar or diverse backgrounds? Will they challenge or reinforce existing beliefs? How can you reach out to people from different backgrounds in your future hiring?

9. Education Level

This is a tricky one, because qualifications are important for many jobs, and often you need people who’ve attained a certain education level.

But I’ve also seen plenty of job descriptions where a college degree was included as a requirement, even though it really wasn’t necessary at all to do the job. For example, a few years ago I used to work as a freelancer for banks and other large firms, making their PowerPoint presentations look pretty. The only real requirement for the job was being good at PowerPoint, but many companies demanded a degree.

By demanding unnecessary qualifications, you are excluding people who may actually be ideal for the job. You’re also making your workforce more homogeneous and less diverse.

So ask yourself what education level is actually required to do the job. If a qualification is truly necessary, then of course you can demand it. But if you’re using a college degree or other educational requirement as a kind of proxy for the skills you believe college graduates will have, then drop the education requirement and list the skills you need instead.

Removing education requirements doesn’t have to mean dropping your standards. It means focusing more accurately on what you need, and giving a chance to people who weren’t able to pursue formal education but who may be the ideal new employees for your company.

10. Life Experience

This is a more general category. I’ve included it because workplace diversity is most effective when it’s less about the categories and more about the people and the diverse insights and perspectives that they bring.

The nine dimensions listed above capture the main types of diversity relevant to a business, but what about employees with life experiences that are radically different from those of the rest of your staff? They can still bring the benefit of new ideas and challenging the status quo.

Personally, I know that traveling extensively has taught me many new things about the world and has made me more valuable as an employee than I was before. But all kinds of experiences could give someone new insights—including experiences that people might not list on a CV because they don’t seem relevant or productive.

So when you’re hiring your next employee, don’t necessarily go for the person with the most relevant qualifications or job experience (although of course those things are important). Consider the whole person and what they can bring to your organization.

Conclusion

In this tutorial, you've seen ten different ways of thinking about diversity. Now you know more about why diversity is important in the workplace and ten ares to focus on improving it in your business. If I’ve missed any categories that you think should be included for a more rounded view of the subject, please let me know in the comments!

The goal of this tutorial has been to encourage you to think more broadly about diversity. But making your workforce more diverse has its challenges too. So in the next tutorial in the series, we’ll zoom in on one particular aspect of diversity: gender. We’ll look in detail at some steps you can take to promote gender equality in your business. See you then!

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