What is Diversity?


by: Rita Nketiah, Senior Programs Associate


As a Canadian, I’m quite familiar with the language of diversity. It is everywhere: in our policies, in our school systems, in our workplaces. We hear it often and it is something we are supposed to celebrate, be accepting of, and tolerate. In reality however, diversity is rarely explained and usually taken for granted.


Diversity, first became popular in the mid-20th century. An ever-changing world, which had begun to deal with socio-political challenges such as the Holocaust and Civil Rights struggles saw the introduction of a new discourse centered on recognizing diversity in our societies. In the United States for instance, President Truman (1948) ordered a desegregation of the armed forces, which would prohibit discrimination based on “race, color, religion or natural origin”1. The United Nations was also established during this period, as a recognition of an increasingly globalized world and a strategy to address national and international conflict between diverse groups. Diversity presented itself as both the reality of the world and as a solution that could address social inequalities. This legacy introduced an imperative, that now, decades later we see has taken root in companies and institutions. Some have started to recognize that homogenous workforces do not reflect business best practice or fairness as a society.


The United Nation’s Child Fund (UNICEF) describes diversity as a commitment to “treat[ing] all people with dignity and respect; show[ing] respect and sensitivity towards gender, cultural and religious differences; challeng[ing] prejudice, biases and intolerance in the workplace; and encouraging diversity wherever possible.” This definition is comprehensive in its goals and objectives, however it doesn’t quite get to why we do diversity work. Ultimately, when discussing diversity, it is important to ask ourselves “to what end?” Why is it important for us to be committed to diverse workplaces, communities and societies? Where does embracing diversity move us towards? What does diversity help us achieve? At Relational, we understand that equitable and, and inclusive systems allow for the nurturance of diversity. It is not enough to respect and encourage diversity or challenge what is not working, we must actively transform the conditions, structures and relationships in our communities.


Below are three (3) ways to think about what diversity is and how it can contribute to more effective communities.


Embracing Diversity is a Moral Imperative
Diversity is about addressing historical injustice and encouraging a different world. As those who have traditionally held power begin to recognize new and non-hierarchical ways of sharing power, we see that living and working conditions present possibilities for flourishing not imagined before. In this way, diversity is about making sure that everyone has a seat at the table and they are seen, heard and genuinely a part of our communities. Diversity means that we fairly represent the world’s people, believing that we can each contribute to making communities and workplaces more effective. There is indeed a moral imperative to embracing diversity: diversity is simply the right thing to do in order to not repeat the legacies that continue to leave some in our world with less opportunity and humanity.


Challenging our own biases makes us better people
A focus on diversity is critical for challenging our own biases and assumptions about people who are not like us. We sometimes develop biases or ideas about people based on the communities or families that we grow up in. Unfortunately, these biases can be harmful and divisive without us even realizing it. Diversity work forces us to “look beyond our front lawn” to acknowledge and engage with people who may not speak a similar language, have the same skin colour or come from the same class background as us in order to expand our understanding of the world. Diversity work is a process of humanizing the world’s people in part by confronting our own ignorance and blind spots.


Diversity makes us more effective
Embracing people from different communities, life experiences and realities can provide us with new and innovative ideas and a multitude of perspectives for problem-solving. Studies have shown that gender and racial diversity is an incredible financial benefit, so much so that it can take a company over their industry average in financial returns.2 Why is this? Indeed, when we have multiple and varied experiences and positionalities, we are also able to understand multiple angles or potential challenges in creating policy, initiating programs or providing services. We come to ask questions like, how might the same product or service be used by a diverse group of people? Having a diversity lens can allow us to create people-centred solutions.


Diversity is Now
While I have attempted to lay out some of the reasons and benefits of doing diversity work, the reality is that we cannot avoid it. With the onset of mass migration, greater awareness of diverse sexual identities, the growing consciousness of women’s rights, and continued struggles for human rights and access, it is inevitable that we grapple with how to most justly live in a diverse world. At Relational we know that through seeing the gaps and needs within our institutions and communities we can make space for enabling Diversity. As an organization, Relational recognizes the ethical imperative and efficiency of promoting and working towards diversity. We encourage you to think about what this looks like in your communities and how you can work towards greater diversity.


1 Dansby, M.R. and Da Landis (2012). “Intercultural Training in the United States Military” Managing Diversity in the Military: Research from the Defense Equal Opportunity Institute. Mickey R. Dansby, James B. Stewart, Schuyler C. Webb. New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers.
2 Vivian Hunt, V., Layton, D. and Sara Prince (2015) “Why diversity matters”. Mckinsey and Company. http://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/organization/our-insights/why-diversity-matters


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