Language matters for diversity and inclusion

Understanding what’s really meant by terminology around anti-racism, diversity or inclusion makes difference

Language matters for diversity and inclusion

When we talk about diversity, anti-racism or inclusion, what are we talking about? There is a lot of vocabulary to understand in order to have informed discussions within our organizations.

Language is important. To ensure that we share a common frame of reference or perspective, we need to be speaking the same language and attributing the same meaning to the words that we use. 

With regards to diversity and inclusion at organizations, the way that we define and operationalize these terms influences how we set policy, develop programming and set standards. 

In this brief column, my goal is to provide some language that will allow us to have productive conversations about how to build and support inclusive HR practices. 

Understanding racism

Let’s start by investigating racism. Racism can be defined as prejudice or mistreatment against an individual because of their membership in a particular racial or ethnic group. It can also be thought of as the differential treatment of an individual because of their race or ethnicity. 

In this way, organizational policies can be racist if they regularly advantage one group of people over another, intentionally or not.

This leads us to a related concept, a sub-category of racism — systemic racism. Systemic racism describes the ways in which one group is favoured over others through policies, systems and structures. These are the pervasive, persistent and frustrating practices and they continue to support the status quo.

In contrast, anti-racism is the policy or practice of opposing racism. When we behave in ways that challenge racism, our behaviour can be described as anti-racist. 

In our organizations, there are examples of racism in how people are treated by colleagues, as well as how decisions are made and the policies that guide these decisions. Many workplaces are built on old paradigms that reflect a time when employee groups were more homogeneous than they are today. 

Enduring structures, societal expectations, as well as standards and policies, continue to limit our ability to move beyond racist practices. I like to use the example of informal mentoring programs to illustrate this point. Mentoring relationships that develop informally are often built on social practices such as attraction and liking.

Often, we hear mentors describe their mentee as “someone I can see so much of myself in.” This type of informal practice supports the movement of some individuals into leadership positions over others — namely, those belonging to demographic groups already present in leadership roles. This is a behavioural tendency that disadvantages individuals from marginalized groups. 

In understanding and being able to name this type of racism, HR can begin to disrupt the practice. For example, I am currently working with a firm that is building sponsorship programs specifically targeting underrepresented groups within their partnership. This is what I would call an inclusive practice. 

Confronting implicit bias

Inclusion is the deliberate effort to create an environment that respects and values all individuals, whereas diversity simply describes the variance in characteristics among a group of people. In other words, diversity is a count (“How many?”) and inclusion is a practice (“What are we doing?”).

In an attempt to build inclusive cultures, organizations have widely adopted the practice of implicit bias training. It is also important to understand this concept and how it differs from racism. Implicit bias is the automatic or unconscious association of stereotypes or attitudes toward particular social groups. An important feature of implicit bias is that it happens before we are completely aware, unlike explicit bias where the attitudes and stereotypes are consciously held.

Implicit bias is particularly troubling because we don’t always know we are exercising this type of bias. In fact, we are rarely aware of how our immediate and unconscious judgments affect our decisions and actions.

Unfortunately, there is little evidence to support the efficacy of implicit bias training, but, as with everything, there is value in awareness. Despite our best efforts, we have blind spots that undermine our ability to make unbiased and inclusive decisions. 

Employers have spent an inordinate amount of money and time on implicit bias training. This is not a bad thing. My concern would be when this type of intervention is viewed as a solution.

Evidence from HR research clearly indicates that there is just as much racism as implicit bias in our organizations. So, there is still much work to be done here.

In my view, this is a space where HR has the potential to be a leader. In understanding the various ways that marginalized groups continue to be marginalized in organizations, HR can lead the way to more diverse and inclusive workplaces. 

A member of Canadian HR Reporter’s advisory board, Marie-Hélène Budworth is an associate professor in the School of Human Resource Management at York University in Toronto.

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