When it comes to DEI, we’ve focused a lot on diversity and equity. Now we need to tackle inclusion.
Many organizations are making diversity, equity, and inclusion a priority, as they increasingly recognize the value of representing people from a wide range of backgrounds. Research shows that diverse teams are more innovative, better at weighing information to make stronger decisions, and produce greater financial returns.
So far, most organizations have focused on getting people from underrepresented groups in the door (diversity) and ensuring they are compensated and supported fairly (equity). Unfortunately, many overlook the third prong of DEI, inclusion. They expect all employees to conform to the same dominant norms, creating organizational cultures that can feel narrow and unwelcoming to individuals with different backgrounds and life experiences.
For example, it’s critical for companies to recruit and hire more women and people of color and ensure they are paid equally to their white male colleagues. But these employees may not stick around long if they are confronted with offices that lack breast-milk pumping rooms or with racially exclusionary policies that outline which hairstyles are and are not considered “professional.”
People do not perform their best or contribute effectively if they are not welcomed, included, and valued for the difference they bring. Inclusion is often the missing ingredient that’s holding companies back from reaping the rewards of their DEI efforts, in terms of both advancing justice and boosting organizational performance and profits.
As a professor at USC Marshall School of Business and a dean focused on DEI, I’ve spent my career examining ways we can make organizations more inclusive. It starts with understanding how your organization’s culture may embody different values and norms than the ones that people from underrepresented groups bring with them.
Fitting in versus standing out
For instance, many women are socialized to prioritize collaboration and teamwork, while men are rewarded for standing out with individual achievements. These different ways of contributing both have value, but managers tend to reward employees who talk the most in meetings and overlook those who listen before speaking and encourage their teammates to express ideas.
We see a similar culture clash among people from different socioeconomic backgrounds. Studies I conducted with Nicole Stephens, Taylor Phillips, Andrea Dittmann, and others found that employees and college students from working-class backgrounds are more likely to have interdependent cultural norms that prioritize relationships and being part of the community. They often feel like they don’t fit in at workplaces and campuses, which tend to be dominated by middle- and upper-class norms that value individual success and paving one’s own path. Our research found that this cultural mismatch can reduce worker retention and student GPAs among people from working class backgrounds.
If we want people from underrepresented groups to flourish, we need to do more than just get them in the door. We must make sure there is space for different ways of contributing and succeeding. Overhauling organizational culture is a major undertaking, but research shows that even small, straightforward interventions can send clear signals that organizations value diverse contributions. By broadening norms, these interventions can help make workplaces, classrooms, and communities more welcoming.
An important first step is to communicate that diversity is a priority and, in fact, an asset. Difference education promotes the idea that people are shaped by their social and cultural backgrounds and that this diversity is a source of strength. Research I conducted with Nicole Stephens and MarYam Hamedani found that difference education improves the GPAs of first-generation students and makes them, as well as continuing-generation students, more comfortable around people who aren’t like them. Even something as simple as having students read a diversity statement emphasizing that their university values multiculturalism can have a lasting benefit for the students’ grades.
Another way to boost inclusion is to reimagine physical spaces and what they communicate about an institution’s culture and priorities. A study involving high school computer science classrooms found that when stereotypical objects like videogames and Star Trek posters were replaced with more neutral artwork and plants, female students felt a greater sense of belonging and their interest in computer science courses jumped to the same level as male students. Tech companies like GitHub have begun to follow suit, moving away from the aesthetic of a clubhouse for coding bros and toward design that is more welcoming to female and nonbinary employees.
One area also ripe for redesign is how organizations structure their tasks and performance metrics. Are splashy individual contributions valued while small administrative tasks, often done by women to keep teams running, are ignored? Are long hours in the office seen as the measure of employee devotion, even though someone who needs to pick up their kids from school may get just as much work done?
Managers and professors may want to include more measures of collaborative contributions in their performance evaluations. Dittmann, Stephens, and I conducted a study of large undergraduate classes and found that first-generation students performed worse than their counterparts on individual assignments. However, they did just as well on group projects. In fact, the more first-gen students there were on a team, the better the team did. These students clearly have something to offer, it just depends on how the task is structured and what kind of contributions are rewarded.
You can’t overhaul your organization’s culture overnight, but the interventions described above are a start to making it more inclusive. They reframe difference and change the messaging people receive about themselves, others, and how everyone fits into their environment. Importantly, they target organizational level policies and practices, in contrast to individual interventions like implicit bias training, which we’ve learned can’t move the needle much without being complemented by systemic institutional change.
It is encouraging to see the world waking up to the fact that diversity is an asset. However, bringing this idea to life means making space for people from a variety of backgrounds to belong and contribute, rather than expecting everyone to conform to dominant norms. Inclusion is perhaps the trickiest part of the DEI equation. It’s nuanced, subtle, and harder to quantify than simple diversity quotas or standardized pay scales. But, without it, organizations will continue to fall short of their DEI goals and the benefits of diversity will remain just out of reach.
Dr. Sarah Townsend is the interim assistant vice dean of diversity, equity, and inclusion and an associate professor of management and organization at USC Marshall School of Business. She studies the psychological foundations of inequality and the cultural divides that result when individuals’ backgrounds collide with the dominant cultural norms of organizations.