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Leading with Character: Different Kinds of Diversity

I’ve been meaning to do a blog on diversity, because there’s so much to explore and discuss. So here goes.

What is Diversity?
The word diversity has its origin in the Latin word diversus, meaning differences or “turned different ways.” Since diversity implies different, the differences between people and the meaning of those differences must be considered in creating a positive workplace culture.

Cultivating such an understanding requires breaking down barriers limiting the definition of diversity to differences in skin color and/or gender. That narrow perspective sells people short by failing to recognize and value what makes them truly unique—their experiences and their thoughts.

Fortunately, diversity is far richer than skin-deep factors or physical appearance a person can’t control. Understanding this complex element of identity, experiences, and thoughts is foundational to individual, organizational, and societal success.

Categories of Diversity
For cultural change to be embraced, people on all sides of the spectrum need to broaden their perspectives to include and unite, not narrow them to exclude and divide. My broader, more inclusive, construct of diversity breaks down this characterization of differences between individuals into three categories: Demographic, Experiential, and Cognitive.

  • Demographic Diversity: Race, Gender, Ethnicity, Age
  • Experiential Diversity: Geographic Origin, Education, Occupation, Religion, Interests
  • Cognitive Diversity: Perspective and Personality

This week’s blog will explore demographic diversity, and I’ll address experiential and cognitive diversity in subsequent posts.

Demographic Diversity
People are all partly defined by their outward appearance, be it race, gender, ethnicity, age, or other characteristics. Sometimes, human nature causes people to stereotype others based on their appearance, presuming members of specific groups are all the same. That is inaccurate and robs people of their individuality and uniqueness. It always annoyed me when someone presumed I thought or acted a certain way solely because of my gender.

My Story
Many years ago, when assigned as the first and only woman on board the icebreaker Polar Star, I found myself serving alongside 150 men. The ship’s senior leadership, the commanding officer and executive officer wanted me to succeed. They expressed concern about me being “alone” and set about the task of having another woman assigned.

Despite insisting I felt very comfortable and confident I was fitting right in with the rest of the crew, I couldn’t change their minds. They had fallen into the trap of thinking all women must be the same, presuming another woman would be company for me, thereby helping me succeed. That presumption made me feel like senior leadership didn’t believe in me. It also made me feel guilty and frustrated as if I was causing a problem they had to solve.

Never had I yearned so strongly to be looked at as just another Coast Guard member, not a female Coast Guard member. Despite my agitation, I respected my supervisors for acting in good faith. They meant well and thought they were helping me.

Within a month or so, Betty reported aboard. From the start, she was put in a tough position. Betty, a lieutenant-junior grade, was senior to me, an ensign, but I was more experienced. While I’d spent four years training at the Coast Guard Academy, she entered the Coast Guard from a civilian college through the three-month Officer Candidate School program. Likewise, while I’d already deployed on another polar icebreaker, Glacier, and earned my watch standing qualifications, Betty had never served at sea or held an operational position. I felt sorry for Betty, as she unknowingly walked into a prickly situation.

The awkward circumstances set us up to feel like we were competing. People couldn’t help but compare the two of us. I felt like I should somewhat hold back on my performance to avoid inadvertently outdoing Betty. Unfortunately, the arrangement contrived by the ship’s leadership didn’t account for these factors, resulting in a situation unfair to both of us. Betty and I became friends, but not because we were both women. Rather, we bonded because we were shipmates with a shared purpose, who respected each other and helped each other succeed.

Lessons Learned
There are several lessons to be learned from this case study. First, people assigned as part of a productive team must possess the right skills and qualifications. They shouldn’t be selected because they meet someone’s criteria for the desired gender, race, or ethnicity.

Second, people must be careful to not presume others need special considerations or help because they’re in a less represented group. Such presumptions can disempower the individuals they’re meant to help and, as in my case, inadvertently send a signal that the organization doesn’t believe in them.

Third, a positive workplace should ideally support a critical mass of women and minorities. Although there is no absolute definition of what constitutes critical mass, it means having enough of the less represented voices to resonate at all levels in the organization. In turn, the organizational culture must respect and value the voices in the less represented groups. Having been part of many newly integrated units and teams, I believe critical mass is unique to each situation. A good rule of thumb is “you know you have it when you can see it and feel the impact.”

On board Polar Star, the two junior female officers in a crew of 150 most definitely did not constitute critical mass. There were no senior female officers (supervisors) above us, nor any female enlisted members (subordinates) below us. Although far from ideal, an organization must start somewhere. It takes time and commitment to achieve a critical mass of women and minorities in any workplace, and during that process, leaders at all levels must do their part to make the change.

Look in the Mirror: Do you reach out your hand to welcome people in the workplace who are different and help them succeed?

Please join me again next week for more on Leading with Character.