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Overcoming the contradictions within diversity programs


Diversity initiatives have gained great support all around the world. One might think that things are better than ever for the diversity movement, however, diversity initiatives are rife with internal contradictions that threaten to blow the whole thing up.

Leaders need to understand the inevitable contradictions in diversity initiatives and move towards a more sophisticated and inclusive perspective before these programs go off the rails.

The contradictions we need to manage

Before I list the contradictions, let me set the scene. I write from the perspective of a long-time resident of Toronto, Canada one of the world’s most ethnically diverse cities in a country that treats diversity with reverence. The situation has a different flavour depending on which country or even city you live in. That said, the contradictions we need to manage exist everywhere.

Contradiction 1: Diversity does not want people to be judged on gender or ethnic origin—yet diversity initiatives are obsessed with gender and ethnic origins.

Already I can imagine the tension rising as we touch on this sensitive topic, but let’s list a few more contradictions before we get to the solutions.

Contradiction 2: Diversity celebrates cultural difference but lumps people with distinct cultures into a single group. In the Canadian context, Japanese and Somalis might both be lumped into the category of “people of colour”.

Contradiction 3: Diversity programs can be wilfully blind to lack of diversity. The ‘right at home’ example is HR. HR has a problem with gender diversity (three-quarters of HR managers are women) yet it’s rarely mentioned. (I don’t think the gender imbalance in HR is a problem. The problem is the failure to acknowledge that it exists and exists for good reasons).

This is not the end of the challenges facing leaders when it comes to diversity, but it gives a sense of the tough problems we need to confront.

Solutions for mitigating the contradictions

Solution 1: Emphasize eliminating bias as the prime objective.

Eliminating bias in hiring, pay and promotion decisions is something everyone can agree with. As long as we keep this as the prime objective, then we will avoid most of the contradictions.

Solution 2: Emphasize an attitude of everyone getting along as adults who seek to get business results.

We don’t want unproductive conflict between ‘diverse people’ to get in the way of business results. We should expect our employees, as adults, to get along—without intervention from HR. If two people have habits, beliefs or preferences that are at odds then they should, as adults, be able to sort this out. Avoiding taking offense is even more important than avoiding giving offense.

Solution 3: Use advocacy for specific ethnic or gender groups sparingly.

As soon as you divide employees by gender or ethnicity you are moving into dangerous terrain; helping one group on the basis of ethnic identity means disadvantaging another group on the basis of ethnicity.

However, sometimes you need to do so.

The mitigating action is to be upfront about the ethical problems this creates. Recognize too that the end result does not need to match the ethnic or gender ratios in the population at large. The Toronto basketball team and hockey team have wonderfully unbiased hiring processes. However, this lack of bias results in an ethnic composition, in both cases, that is wildly different from the population at large. Trying to ‘fix’ the ethnic balance on those teams would be creating bias not removing it.

Solution 4: Ponder how inclusiveness can better include men

Years ago, the business world was so overwhelmingly male that the focus of gender diversity programs could simply be on women. Now, on some metrics, men are disadvantaged. If inclusiveness programs look at gender (which is inevitable no matter how much you embrace Solution 1) they should consider how to make men feel included.

Solution 5: Treat diversity like any other business initiative

If you think managing the contradictions of diversity is hard then think of the contradictions of managing quality. With quality initiatives, we want high quality while insisting on lower costs and faster cycle times—that creates contradictions. We have to get past the point where the topic of diversity is so sensitive that we can’t talk about the problems.


Here in Canada, we approach diversity initiatives as if they are simple, self-evidently good programs. We need to recognize that in fact, they are complex, morally challenging initiatives that we need to approach with sophistication, wisdom and the common sense of results-focused business professionals.

I foresee a new movement of “Positive Diversity”


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