Is equity, diversity & inclusion (EDI) in your workplace only “lip service”?
Equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) efforts have become ever-increasing focus areas within the public and private sectors globally. Unfortunately, many EDI initiatives are constructed without research, social change frameworks, or involving the people directly impacted by the efforts. As such, the constructs of widely adopted EDI strategies and partnered discourse often reflect check-the-box procedures, add-ons to conventional structures, segregation, and even disingenuous public relations tactics (aka “lip service”). Examples of this in the workplace include enacted values that do not align with espoused values, underfunded mental health programs and minimal employee benefits, gender quotas, and employee network groups (separate networks for women, LGBTQIA2S+ community members, and even different ethnicities). In schools, examples include anti-discrimination and anti-racism policies that are not supported by practices, single-day anti-bullying campaigns, and girls-only science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) programs. Although EDI initiatives are generally well-intended, rarely are the impacts researched alongside social change frameworks prior to implementation. As such, these initiatives could have adverse effects on social development and well-being. This requires organizations to assess their current EDI plan and ask:
Have we involved all the people that will be directly impacted? Do they believe the initiatives and plan will lead to positive social change?
What does the existing research say? Do we need to do some of our own research to trial an initiative before launching it? (Pilot projects are a great way to trial EDI initiatives.)
Do we have a measurable plan that aligns initiatives with intended outcomes and impacts?
Let's explore some scenarios together that you can use to start assessing EDI efforts at your organization.
Equity and equality
We’ll start by exploring two definitions commonly used in EDI discourse. Equity and equality are sometimes used interchangeably, but they are different concepts. Equality involves giving everyone the same rights (e.g., to vote, to marry) and the same resources (e.g., access to paternal benefits in Canada). Women, men, and non-binary people receiving equal pay for the same job position/level of experience is an example of equality.
On the other hand, equity requires us to understand: (1) how barriers intersect and present heavier burdens to some people, and (2) what needs to be done differently to better support these people. An example of this in the workplace may be an Indigenous woman and mother of two who did not have access to post-secondary education because her family and ancestors were forcefully relocated to a remote reserve following the colonization of their traditional lands. Race, ethnicity, ancestry, gender, and socioeconomic factors intersect in a way that presents additional barriers to this person due to inequitable systems. We’ll refer to this woman as Mary in this scenario.
Mary creates a team environment amongst her peers that enables learning, growing, and achieving outcomes together. She works hard, in the office and at home. Due to competing family and financial priorities, Mary cannot attend after-work activities that would otherwise provide her with informal access to build relationships with leadership team members. Suppose job promotions at your organization are largely linked to who leadership spends time with on the golf course (or your organizational equivalent of informal access to management). In that case, many brilliant people will never be given the opportunity to shine, or they will move on to a different organization that does recognize them.
Mary is not asking for special treatment. But leadership teams and organizations do need to recognize that not all people have access to the same resources and privileges. So how do organizations balance equality and equity? Here are some places to start:
Recruitment – Does your organization have unbiased, merit-based hiring practices? Or will it only hire someone who a manager personally refers?
Compensation – Do compensation packages at your organization align with rising living costs and increasing health needs (e.g., benefits coverage for not working while sick, and if needed, mental health support)? Or do only executives live comfortably?
Learning and development – Does your organization fairly support the learning and development of all employees? Or does it only fund MBAs of high-earning executives? (The Marys of the world will continue to face socioeconomic barriers if your answer is the latter.)
Promotions – Does your organization have transparent, merit-based promotion practices? Or do promotions continue happening behind closed doors?
Mainstream diversity management commonly considers race and ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, and disability. However, many factors contribute to our differences, including race, ethnicity, ancestry, nationality, place of origin, resident or displaced person status, language(s), sex, gender identity/expression, sexual orientation, age, physical and mental abilities, personality traits, level of education, occupation, socioeconomic means, marital and parental status, spirituality and religion, political affiliation, values, perspectives, personal interests, ideas, and aspirations. A key challenge with diversity initiatives is that organizations tend to get caught up trying to show they are diverse. For example, they might establish employee networks for minority groups and gender quotas, highlighting this in annual reports and via social media. The problem with this is that employee networks segregate minority groups, and gender quotas attempt to apply a simple fix to a complex problem. This brings us to inclusion.
Inclusion is the opposite of exclusion, and as such, just being hired suggests a level of inclusion. I like to draw a distinction between that kind of inclusion and what I call authentic inclusion. Authentic inclusion moves us beyond talk to understanding and thoughtful action. It involves putting in the hard work to assess systems, structures, processes, and relations in the workplace and what needs to shift to help people across differences participate more fully. For example, does the conference room structure and team meeting style enable everyone to contribute, or are only a few voices ever heard?
This is where the magic happens. By bringing EDI alongside mental health considerations, we all have the potential to co-create workplace, learning, and community environments that are psychologically safe and enable belonging. When people feel psychologically safe, they are encouraged to be creative and put forth ideas. They trust their team and feel safe asking questions. The mutual respect within the team enables knowledge sharing, learning, growth, and achieving outcomes together. And the best part is...your organization can do this together by involving your employees in the co-creation of meaningful social change.
Celebrate Our Differences is a social business supporting the development of workplaces and communities to co-create places of psychological safety and belonging. Providing organizational and community development consulting services, we work alongside organizations to address complex challenges through co-creation approaches that enable people to participate more fully in the workplace and community.