Diversity among the workforce is a major topic, and business leaders frequently discuss the practical challenges and benefits of making their organizations more diverse. There are many dimensions to address — race, gender/sex, age, background, skills, and attitudes all play into diversity. Some areas are off-limits (religion), some are hidden (experiences), while others are visible (race and sex). The visible ones tend to take priority as many companies want to appear diverse and “mirror the market,” a market which is always going to be more diverse than any small organizational segment relating to that market. But even the visible differences can lead to controversy, as a recent article in InsideHigherEd detailed, where Cornell students and administrators are debating exactly how a “black student” is defined.
There is even a definition of diversity that embraces office design, purporting to use office spaces to spark different perspectives and attitudes, improve wellness, and increase productivity — all in the name of diversity.
The Scholarly Kitchen has been improving its diversity since its beginning. It was set up to reflect the community, with part of its mission listed as:
Attract the community of STM information experts interested in these things and give them a place to contribute.
If diversity is about mirroring your market, how diverse is scholarly publishing? It has expanded dramatically in the past two decades, with China entering the mainstream, consolidation driving outsourcing, and more remote employees with flexible schedules. In 2016, a paper in Learned Publishing examined our industry’s demographics, finding:
- 90.79% of our industry identified as white
- 63.64% were female, with this rate even higher in the younger cohorts
- 50% of the men and 44% of the women held managerial positions
There are many nuggets to pull out of the paper. It’s worth a read. But to me and many others, diversity goes beyond the things measured in this survey.
As this blog’s founder, I’ve seen the goals for diversity here morph across what is nearly a decade now. Originally, the pressure for diversity related to getting a librarian to blog (role-based diversity). Once that was accomplished, the pressure shifted to finding a female blogger (gender/sex diversity). Then, it shifted to getting a blogger who represented the humanities (discipline-based diversity), and then a vendor (again, role-based diversity). Other areas we’ve tried to improve include age-, race-, and economy-based diversity — looking for younger contributors with different ethnic and geographic/economic perspectives.
However, these efforts don’t always translate into intellectual diversity. By the time someone is within our industry, they have been through a vetting process that homogenizes a great deal of thinking and experience — via editorial training and work, or management training, or scientific training, or information management (librarianship or bibliographic) training, or technology training, or some combination of these and more. There are also meta-issues (e.g., open access, economics, roles) that affect attitudes alone or in combination.
There are also personality preferences (daring vs. cautious, risk-tolerant vs. risk-averse, and so forth), as well as what seem to be intrinsic abilities certain people have, such as emotional intelligence, creativity, lateral thinking, and so forth. Hiring for these is critical to success, but those kinds of diversity won’t show up in a photograph.
Superficial similarities can mask deeper sources of diversity. It may stymie many readers if they were forced to guess who among the Chefs once lived as religious minorities or experienced life as racial minorities or political minorities. For any of these situations, you can’t tell by looking, and you also can’t know what attitudes these experiences changed or cemented. The opposite can also be true. I’m sure we’ve all known people who meet diversity perceptions (racial, gender, ethnic) but are mainstream in their thinking, education, family life, and attitudes. Some haven’t traveled much, and may even be considered sheltered and uninformed.
We also have to acknowledge there are parts of society this blog will likely never include — white nationalists, science deniers, palm readers, anti-vaxxers, creationists. Intellectual diversity has boundaries for most institutions. You won’t find a gun control advocate working at the National Rifle Association. You can’t do base-13 math in the accounting department.
We’re in tricky territory when the word “diversity” is intoned, and maybe chasing something that can’t be fully understood or described. It’s hard to pin down a definition.
So, we’re in tricky territory when the word “diversity” is intoned, and maybe chasing something that can’t be fully understood or described. Sometimes, it’s described as “acceptance” and “tolerance,” yet some things (belief in creationist origins or racial superiority) we would not accept in our community. Does that make us less than diverse? Certainly, but it also underscores that diversity is a community definition, not an absolute definition.
Diversity has temporal elements. One hundred years ago, if the same attitude about diversity had been in place, we might have been looking for Irish contributors to reflect immigration trends and help newcomers be more prominent. Sometime after 2065, when Caucasians are projected to become a minority in the US, they may be the diversity play for certain companies.
Diversity for appearance’s sake does nobody any favors. It has to go further. Whoever you hire, with diversity in mind or not, these employees have to be able to do the work, and be willing to do the work. These simple-sounding statements have implications for diversity initiatives.
For people to do the work you’ve hired them to do, they need to be given the authority and remit necessary, and sometimes the support to break down attitudes or silos that might keep them from achieving what you want them to achieve. For people who look different or have different backgrounds, subtle, undetected biases can set them back or undermine their work. Being aware of these and addressing them when necessary is important. This means “air support” (creating a culture where everyone knows you’re inclusive and aiming at high achievement for everyone who can contribute, no matter what they look or sound like) and “ground support” (potentially talking directly with people who have a hard time overcoming biases for whatever reason — human nature includes unrecognized biases as an unwelcome corollary function of our pattern recognition wetware).
This also means not allowing double-standards to creep into the workplace, where those who might appear to belong to Team Diversity are treated with kid gloves while those who might appear to be on Team Mainstream are treated like a regular employee would expect to be treated. As I mentioned above, diversity of thinking, background, and experience can make members of Team Mainstream surprisingly diverse, even if they look typical. At the same time, for members of Team Diversity to rise through the ranks and reach their full potential — director-level, CEO, or more — they and the organization will benefit the most if they do that effectively and completely.
Global firms also deal with other elements of our diverse world, such as different languages, laws, and currencies. The lingua franca of business may be English, but try conducting a focus group in France with that expectation. If a non-English market is important, you will need people with language skills, no matter what they look like. You may need lawyers and financial experts who know laws that aren’t specific to where your headquarters is located. Cultural norms can also be tricky, too, as there are subtle ways businesses earn trust in other markets, ways that are different from how it’s done in the US or western Europe.
All in all, diversity is a good lens through which to look at the world. You and your organization can learn and gain a lot through its kaleidoscope. Diversity is also complicated and hard to define at some levels — attitudes, experiences, and backgrounds aren’t all visible with the naked eye. You need to look more deeply at candidates, analyze how they think and how that fits with your culture, train managers to balance business needs with individual mentoring, protect and preserve inclusiveness, and so much more. Humans are complicated, and we can be our own worst enemies.
Finally, it’s worth underscoring that diversity is contextual. What is a strength in some situations can be a weakness in others, no matter who it is. We’ve all experienced this — when a male presence helps, when a female presence works better, when someone comfortable with conflict is needed, when a team needs a leader comfortable with risk, or when someone who has lived overseas can contribute more. Because contexts shift, an organization that is diverse — in attitude, appearance, age, gender, experience, skill, and temperament, to name a few — will be more adaptable. That’s to me the ultimate upside of increased diversity — increased resilience.