A very basic, yet complex question was brought up at my monthly diversity discussion group. It was, “I hear so much about diversity, but when I ask people what they mean by it, I get different answers. What exactly is diversity?” Below are a few of the responses by the participants, some of whom have been working with multicultural diversity in the workplace for many years.

What is diversity? “It is all the different answers from different perspectives. There is not just one answer to that question. It can be an inclusive answer, that diversity includes all of these things. But that’s not only what diversity is. Also, within each one area of diversity, there is diversity. Whatever the person’s definition is, it can only be used as a stepping off point.”

What is diversity? “Some say, ‘Diversity includes all differences, such as hair color, different preferences in food and clothing styles, etc. We’re all diverse, so there’s no big deal.’ However, this dilutes and trivializes diversity. Diversity stemmed from trying to find ways to deal with EO/AA legislation, and more importantly from the realization that society and the workplace are becoming more diverse. Laws such as Title VII of the Civil Right Act, the ADA, state Human Rights Acts, and more, which were put into place to correct discriminatory behaviors, can help in identifying the more major issues that need to be addressed regarding diversity.”

What is diversity? “Three key words need to be defined in what diversity should convey in its meaning. They are discrimination, racism and bigotry. These can be described as an exercise of an irrational isolation of people by their class or skin color; a prejudice plus power; and an obsession with one’s own race’s supremacy undermining others.

If we continue struggling with diversity, is it because little has changed attitudinally toward non-whites and other diverse groups? Consider these thoughts… Is this due to:

  • a lack of education and exposure to multicultural diversity?
  • an intentional ignorance because of the threat that diversity represents?
  • diversity being a topic seldom accurately defined, and sometimes avoided intentionally?
  • diversity getting a bad rap because many people relate it to affirmative action and because there is a lot of fear surrounding it, so just the word conjures up negative feelings some times?

Many organizations started out with the definition of diversity from the book, Workforce America, by Loden and Rosener (1991). They defined diversity as having two dimensions. Primary dimensions include age, ethnicity, gender, physical abilities, race, and sexual orientation. Secondary dimensions include things like educational background, geographic location, income level, marital status, military experience, parental status, religious beliefs, and work experience.

In the book Redefining Diversity by R. Roosevelt Thomas, Jr. (1991) offers this definition: Diversity refers to any mixture of items characterized by differences and similarities. He then makes three points.

  1. Diversity is not synonymous with differences, but encompasses differences and similarities.
  2. Diversity refers to the collective (all-inclusive) mixture of differences and similarities along a given dimension.
  3. The component elements in diversity mixtures can vary, and so a discussion of diversity must specify the dimensions in question.

How does your organization define diversity? Defining diversity (and inclusion) is an excellent place to start with your organization’s diversity initiatives. At one of my client organizations, after assessing the meaning of diversity with the diversity and inclusion manager, I posed the same question to the newly formed diversity and inclusion task force. What we heard were several strong opinions on what to include (and what to exclude, such as sexual minorities) in their definition of diversity.

Individually, I challenge each of you to continue to search for your definition of diversity, and not to be surprised if it changes over time. Learning about diversity is a life-long process. Maybe that is just the point. Diversity is not easily defined because it is a process.  It is not something to strive to get comfortable with and then move on with your life. The goal may be to learn to accept being uncomfortable at times and to be ready to step outside of your comfort zone at a moment’s notice.

Listen to, discuss, and continue learning about culturally diverse perspectives. Try to see situations through the eyes of others who are different from you in some way. Gain a deeper awareness of existing multicultural diversity in society and how workplace diversity continues to change. Instead of being surprised by and reactive to situations involving diversity, this will help you be proactive and become a change agent in a changing world.


Copyright © 2016 Lila Kelly Associates, LLC. Integrating Diversity into Recruiting, Interviewing, Hiring and Retention – Since 1992. Not to be reprinted without written permission from Lila Kelly. Check out our online trainings and books on multicultural diversity and the hiring process. To stay up to date on all the latest from Lila Kelly Associates and DiversityIntegration.com subscribe to our monthly newsletter.