Diversity is not Inclusion

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Achieving a truly diverse and inclusive workplace is a lot of work says Sarah Richson

If you do not understand the benefits of difference, you will always align yourself to your similarities, and in doing so you will miss out on the beauty that variety brings to the table.

This is a quote I came up with while deepening my knowledge in this interesting subject of diversity and inclusion. This is because the more I understood it, the more it made so much sense. As an Executive Assistant, have you ever felt as if your opinions didn’t matter even though someone asked for them? True, you were asked for your idea, but was it included in the final decision made, or did someone think you were too young to contribute wisdom? Or did you get that job because of where you are from or because of gender?

I would like to challenge the wonderful global community of assistants to notice the subtle benefits of taking any opportunity to not only be diverse, but to also be inclusive.  A great example is demonstrated in global conferences I have attended.  I am always impressed at the diverse and inclusive line-up of speakers which sends out a great message to participants from diverse groups.  In the words of Minouche Shafik, Director of the London School of Economics:

In the past, jobs were about muscles, now they’re about brains, but in the future, they’ll be about the heart.

The most common misconception about a company being diverse is that this diversity automatically turns into benefits. When companies go through the auditing process, they take pride in ticking the boxes of diversity and meeting any legal ‘minimums’ right?  However, sadly not enough work has been put in implementing the true nature of being inclusive. The problem arises because the concepts of “diversity” and “inclusion” are so often lumped together that people think they are the same thing, but that is not the case.

The diversity versus inclusion issue is difficult.  It is easy to measure diversity as it is a simple matter of head count and face value; however quantifying feelings of inclusion within diverse environments is more challenging. Diversity is recognizing difference but not leveraging it to drive organizational success, while inclusion is actively creating an inclusive environment, through deliberate programs that enable a diverse range of people to work together effectively.  In today’s globalized society, the Executive Assistant’s role will undoubtedly interact with diverse people.

Just as the diversity advocate Vernā Myers put it,

Diversity is being invited to the party. Inclusion is being asked to dance.

Diversity alone does not drive and mean inclusion, it only means a variety of people from different spectrums.  Inclusion is considering and valuing everyone’s contribution to decision making. I have an acronym I use to break down the various elements of diversity, VAGALPRECS:

Values

Ability/Disability

Gender

Age

Language

Personality

Religion

Education

Culture/Ethnicity

Social class

This summarizes different ways people are diverse in the work place. We also have to take into consideration how do they think? What is their perspective? Are they included in their daily work?  All these aspects of diversity are intertwined together, one affects the next and influences the other.  

As an Assistant you are usually seen as a representative of the office of your Executive. Hence, it is important to accept other opinions even though they may differ from your opinion. People need to understand that it is okay to have different values and it is okay to have different opinions. One’s different value does not mean it is more superior or less important than another.

You would think that because of how aware people are about individuals living with different abilities – for example the neurotypical, people with no developmental disability, and the nuerodivergent, people that are divergent to any given social or medical norm – that companies would be more inclusive. Understanding how to include different people who are autistic, have anxiety or many other conditions, when they perform tasks and functions, should ensure that they are included in the work space just as any other person would have been. Companies would look at ability instead of disability. Sadly, during the recruitment of new staff, this may be the only factor that determines if one is picked or not, if one does not focus on the benefits of difference.

Many experts in diversity and inclusion are asserting that neurological differences should be recognized and respected as a social category on par with gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or disability status.

Executives come with differences and therefore their Assistants must be open-minded and non-judgmental as they work with different individuals.  In certain contexts, and cultures, gender means the roles played in the work place are that of binary (male and female). You may find a very strong-willed female who is keen on leading or to whom giving orders just comes naturally; you might also find a male who works best by taking instruction and not entirely making the big decisions. These two are taking different roles to what is expected of them, but understanding these different aspects creates a comfortable platform for them without making misconceptions about their individuality.

I acknowledge that achieving a truly diverse and inclusive workplace is a lot of work. Assistants must contend with the biases people embrace on an unconscious level, deep prejudices or stereotypes imparted by upbringing and mass media that influence our perceptions about others, but it is not an impossible task. Individuals must deliberately develop practices to mitigate this. Talking about it is just creating awareness, they still need to practice it and make it a norm in their day to day work life.

As an assistant, you will interact with many diverse people, who may or may not include you or may not feel included by your actions. Being aware of this will go a long way in ensuring there is peace and productivity in the work place.

I therefore leave you with a quote by Joe Gerstandt to ponder on:

Diversity is about the ingredients, the mix of people and perspectives. Inclusion is about the container, the place that allows employees to feel they belong, to feel both accepted and different. You need a group of people who think differently in a container that is safe enough to share those differences.

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About Author

Sarah Richson

Sarah Richson (MBA, MCIPD, AOEC, MIHRM) started her career as an Executive Personal Assistant but transformed her career path through her passion for people, to become one of the world's top human development thought leaders. Her passion for developing grass root talent and unleashing hidden potential in others is the driving force in her life. She is a prolific speaker and trainer who advocates for empowering lives of local communities with inspirational mentorship programs. An international consultant, executive coach and organisation development expert, her career is multi-dimensional and includes years as a leadership professional trainer and HR Consultant working on European, Asian and African projects. She is a wife and working mother of 5 and claims that her success is underpinned by having a warm supportive family. Sarah works with Assistants on topics such as emotional intelligence and personal branding, that inspire and build the Assistant as a professional and as a holistic individual.

2 Comments

  1. Kaye Walraven on

    Sarah, I loved your article! Our company has a Diversity and Inclusive committee and they are working really hard to bring the rest of the employees on board. I’m not sure that everyone understands what diversity and inclusion means. Is it okay if I share your article with them?

    • Kathleen Drum
      Kathleen Drum on

      Hi Kaye, Kathleen Drum here, Editor of Executive Secretary Magazine. I will be in touch by email with a PDF copy of the article.

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