Diversity Should Never Be an Afterthought

More and more, in business as well as event planning, ‘diversity’ is becoming a buzzword. Whether people are hiring for a company, assembling panels for a convention, or sending out invites to an industry event, they want to be ‘diverse,’ by which they seem to mean that people from a variety of backgrounds, life experiences, and communities are represented. In other words, ‘diversity’ is about being something other than white, straight, nondisabled, and male (among other very common and dominant classes). On the surface, diversity initiatives sound like a great idea, especially when the push comes internally, from an organisation that genuinely wants to improve itself, and not necessarily in response to vociferous complaints from outsiders.

However, diversity is more complex than simply wanting it very much. You can’t wish very hard and magically get a pony, and the same holds true of a diverse event, workplace, college, or any other locale. In order for it to work, you have to make it appealing to the populations you want better-represented in and around the organisation, and you have to provide them with an incentive to stay. Oddly enough, being told that they’re wanted as tokens doesn’t really encourage people to commit to a diversity initiative being run by someone else, and this shouldn’t come as a complete surprise: Who, after all, wants to feel as though she’s attending an event only on sufferance because she fills out the ranks?

What most organisations need is a diversity consultant, ideally someone from outside the organisation who can look in, examining the way the organisation is structured, meeting existing people within the framework, reviewing existing policies, and working on developing a way to address and improve problems. This helps with the first step, namely, addressing the issues that either push people away or force people to leave. The presence of a consultant, and transparent, clear, concrete steps toward fixing problems also creates an incentive to attend, as communities see that an organisation is taking their needs seriously and wants to include them, rather than tolerating them on sufferance as something that will make photos from their events and in their brochures look more attractive.

This is the start of an incentive structure, creating a reason for diverse communities to express interest. It’s not just enough to hire a consultant and provide clear information about policies and other issues to make minorities safer and more comfortable, though. The organisation also needs to be communicating about larger changes happening. At a conference, for example, the span of events should be broader, with panels and other key components including more diverse and interesting subjects. In a workplace, companies should commit to offering childcare and other support services to people who need those services to work, or feel more included in a workplace where they are available, even if they don’t need them. It’s up to an organisation to show that it’s ready to include people from a variety of backgrounds, without making it into a production.

And, of course, diversity initiatives need to be maintained. Workplaces need to provide regular training and offer an active human resources department that takes complaints seriously and acts upon them in a timely fashion. Conferences need to have strong anti-harassment policies backed by conference authorities who can act quickly to address reports. Organisations large and small need to communicate throughout themselves, from board members to interns, to  make sure that everyone feels comfortable and supported, with a recognition of needs specific to certain groups of employees. Things like gender neutral bathrooms, for example, might not actually matter to the majority of a company, but they could be a dealbreaker for some queer employees, both in the sense that their absence might make it impossible to work, or in the sense that the lack of gender neutral bathrooms might be viewed as a bad sign in terms of corporate inclusion. That makes them important for everyone, because employees themselves need to prioritise diversity too.

But the thing is, diversity is often considered an afterthought, and experts in the issue are even more of an afterthought. It’s only after a conference is organised that someone bothers to think about the accessibility at the hotel, and the possible expense of sign language interpreters, live captioning, and other support for d/Deaf attendees. It’s only after a new office building is commissioned that anyone wonders if gender neutral bathrooms should have been installed, or if the buildings in the bathroom should be gender neutral across the board. It’s only after the events at a company training are planned that anyone stops to think that maybe there should be a workshop or class on race in the workplace.

Often, majorities think that they can be ‘allies’ (how I loathe that word and all that comes with it) and take care of any ‘diversity issues’ themselves. Conrunners don’t need to consult directly with minority communities when it comes to identifying and accommodating their needs, for example, as surely it can’t be that hard! People of colour don’t need specific consideration and a consultation with an actual person of colour to be accommodated! How difficult can it be?

Diversity should never be an afterthought, but rather something considered from the start. And diversity should be achieved with the assistance of a consultant, someone with the expertise, experience, skills, and training to address diversity issues and move an organisation towards better integration and inclusion of minority groups. The very fact that so many organisations think an expert isn’t necessary is a telling testimony to the dismissive view with which many organisations view minorities. Yes, using a consultant will cost money. Diversity doesn’t come free, and minorities aren’t going to offer up their time, bodies, and experience for free just because an organisation wants brownie points for being ‘inclusive.’ For some reason, other expenses are considered acceptable costs of doing business — why not the same for a diversity consultant?

Image: Rainbow pencils, Doug Wheller, Flickr