“We don’t just have one identity — our identities are made up of many things, both physically and culturally, and the intersections matter.” — Elise Birkhofer, global lead for Google’s largest employee resource group
Companies across the globe are striving to increase their support of women as a group. But millennials especially have made it clear they don’t want to be defined by a demographic category. So how can organizations focus diversity and inclusion efforts to address cultural groups’ unique needs and build fluid, cross-cultural communities that promote collaboration and avoid pigeonholing?
One Size Doesn’t Fit All Women
The benefits of diversity in the workplace are clear. But too often, especially when it comes to women’s groups, D&I efforts fail to recognize the heterogeneity within a group. As the population of multicultural employees continues to grow, one-size-fits-all women’s initiatives won’t resonate equally.
Individual cultural context plays a huge role in shaping how individuals communicate, are motivated and are perceived. Take networking, for example — the “do’s and don’ts” can be pretty mysterious to multicultural employees. In facilitating a learning initiative at a Big 4 consulting firm, I heard from a young Asian woman struggling to understand what was appropriate: “How do I promote myself without coming across as too showy or aggressive? Is it OK to talk about my kids? Can I ask others about their personal life?” Faced with challenges that relate to both cultural and gender identity, this woman ended up feeling disconnected from her colleagues, even those in the women’s employee resource group.
Recognize Intersectional Identities
A better approach is one that acknowledges intersectionality, the multiple aspects of an individual’s identity that shape and define their personal experience. D&I initiatives that actively appreciate intersectionality build cultures less likely to stereotype people or to consider them as token representatives of a particular group. A “check-the-box” approach to D&I may leave important multicultural issues unaddressed.
Below are some tips for avoiding pitfalls as you plan or re-assess your D&I programs:
- Embed D&I throughout the talent pipeline. Focusing on diversity only in recruitment, for example, could backfire unless it’s reinforced at other touchpoints, from hiring and onboarding to performance reviews and L&D. In a culturally agile workplace, all functions need to play together.
- Foster fluidity across groups. Rather than operating within rigid parameters, the “best employee resource groups offer multiple points of entry for colleagues who are not of the same affinity group to get involved and learn from them.” This is not without challenges, but it can be a great opportunity to foster cross-cultural learning and enable open discussion.
- Provide specialized coaching/mentoring. Women from multicultural backgrounds can benefit from having a coach or mentor with whom they can surface unconscious biases, discuss options and hone their communications skills. Sharing experiences and solutions with managers and peers who’ve “been there” is invaluable.
- Maintain commitment to diversity initiatives. If possible, make resources available year-round: D&I can’t be reduced to an “Annual Women’s Day.”
- Ensure management is included and equipped. It’s important not to leave out members of the more dominant culture, especially if they represent decision-making power. “To better involve leaders, companies should provide the infrastructure and mechanisms to connect ERGs to a broader leadership-sanctioned touchpoint.” Organizations need leaders capable of promoting and sustaining an inclusive culture. Raising awareness is not enough — training managers in the best D&I practices is a must.
Finally, as a guiding principle at each step, embrace inclusion, not just diversity. Intersectionality is the key to breaking down barriers, increasing trust and fostering open, honest communication that supports employees from all walks of life. This, in turn, leads to tangible business benefits: greater cross-collaboration, productivity and organizational health.
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