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Seven Ways To Empower Diversity Where You Work

Empowering diversity means more than having people of different ethnicities, genders, abilities, sizes, sexual orientation and ages working with you. It requires seeing what we share, acknowledging the challenges we each face, and being open to celebrating the richness our differences offer. Here are seven ways to move into empowering diversity.

Get Past The Stereotypes
Think how narrow the stereotype is of what executive assistants do, compared with everything you actually do. As humans, we’re sometimes so quick to think we know who someone else is based on a single label (oh, that’s the janitor) that we forget everyone else is just as complex and multifaceted as ourselves. There’s no “the” African American, or “the” immigrant or “the” Latino or “the” fifty-something, any more than there is “the” secretary.

When the TV show Glee first came out, an entertainment commentator said that Glee was doing such a fantastic job of humanizing people with disabilities. That’s when David Radcliff, an award-winning TV writer, and also a person with cerebral palsy remarked, “What was I before he saw Glee?”

We are all individuals, not categories, and that’s important to remember.

See The Mirrors and Add Some Windows
From the photos of happy customers on your website (who is included and who isn’t?) to the television in the waiting area (are you playing fashion shows or black history documentaries?), everything your company does sends a message.

Just like a book, these stories function in two ways: They can mirror your identity and experience, or they can offer you a window into someone else’s life, letting you see the common humanity of someone who, on the outside, may seem so different.

What stories are you telling that are just mirrors? Add a variety of windows so diversity isn’t just represented, but appreciated and better understood.

Tweak Your Forms
The assumptions made in forms (especially about family structure and gender identity) broadcast what a company considers to be normal.

What about people with two dads, or two moms, or single parents, or step-parents, or who were raised by other family members or guardians? Changing the language to “parent/guardian” sends a message to the person with two moms that his family fits in with the world vision of your company, and it sends a message to the person with one mom and one dad that her family structure isn’t the only kind of family your company respects.

Asking for the information about someone’s “spouse/significant other” instead would include other relationships, like two women living together, or a woman and man living together.

Most forms ask this either/or, but many other cultures view gender differently. Even in our culture, a segment of twenty-somethings identify as neither men nor women, but as gender queer.

Since September 2011, Australian passports have an “option X” designation for those who don’t consider themselves to be male or female. When you sign up with Google for an e-mail account, you can choose female, male or other.

Adding a third choice is a small change that speaks loudly of a company’s respect for gender difference.

Understand That Words Have Power
Imagine, if you are a women who can fall in love with a man, or if you are a man who can fall in love with a woman, if you were spoken of only as a heterosexual; if your entire sum of being were defined by your sexual orientation.

The word “homosexual” is equally problematic.

If we think of gay men, lesbians and bi people as men who can fall in love with other men, women who can fall in love with other women, and people who can fall in love with men or women it emphasizes what we all have in common.

The glue that holds together my family (my husband, myself and our daughter) is love—the same love that holds together you and your family. What if the cultural debate were about not same-sex marriage, but simply about love?

Fat or big? Midget or little person? Oriental or Asian? Changing our words can change an entire discussion.

Get A Mentor/Be A Mentor
Generational differences are often cited as a source of conflict, but different perspectives, different strengths, and different experiences can actually help you in your tasks and empower your company to better achieve its mission.

Consider that younger colleagues’ ability to see a problem with fresh eyes combined with older colleagues’ experience and depth of understanding can together solve issues that seemed unsolvable. Mentoring is a powerful way to bridge generational (and cultural) divides.

Having a mentor can be a huge career boost, as someone who has “been there” can give others in the office guidance and encouragement on their own paths. Being a mentor can also be a huge boost, offering insights gained by teaching, and the power and satisfaction in drawing out the best in others, which lets both people shine.

A mentoring relationship is a two-way street: we all have much to offer, and much to learn. No matter where you are in your career, look to be mentored and to mentor someone else. The more mentoring, the tighter the knit of our community, and the more we can directly benefit from the diversity that is all around us, the diversity that we are part of.

Be Honest About Who You Are.
“Lee, do you know how long I was at my new job before anyone knew I had six kids?”

Some people hide major parts of their lives when they are at work, concerned about the judgments and stereotypes others might put on them.

That friend hid being a parent for six months. It was six months before she felt comfortable putting up photos of her children in her cubicle. Six months of editing every comment, every question about her life outside of work and every word while she was on the phone.

Inner life has a profound impact on how we perform at work. Research by Harvard Business School Professor Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer shows that “Conventional wisdom suggests that pressure enhances performance; our real-time data, however, shows that workers perform better when they are happily engaged in what they do.”

How happily engaged can you be if you’re constantly hiding that you have colitis, or that you’re an atheist, or that you’re gay, or that you have six kids?

It takes a lot of energy to hide part of who you are. Being honest and authentically you will break the stereotypes and free you up to be engaged, happy and do your best work.

Stand Up As An Ally
Is your company not yet a safe place to be openly you? One way to help change that is to stand up for others.

In a taxi driving down an empty New York street one night, my driver asked where I was from. When I told him Los Angeles, he said, “Oh, I hear California’s beautiful. Except for the [expletive] Mexicans, right?”

I was stunned. It didn’t feel safe to express how offended I was, but I couldn’t just let it go. I sounded like I was talking to a preschooler, “Well, there are some unpleasant people and some wonderful people in every group, and I don’t think there’s a lot to gain from calling a whole group of people bad.”

“What, are you Mexican?” he asked.

“No, but that’s not the point!” I said sharply.

And then we sat in silence as the car sped down the dark road. Getting out at my destination I said, “I hope you think about what I said. We all have the chance to make our world a better place, so why wouldn’t we take it?” I don’t know what impact my words had, but at least I know that I said something.

That’s how change happens. If I, as a gay white man, stand up to others—however different they are from me in color, religious belief, gender or ability, I am one person taking a stand. That’s good. If we all do it, then we are many and can shift a whole culture.

Find ways to let people know that you are their ally. Stand up for others. Doing that will make it easier to stand up for yourself because you’ll have practice in standing up for others. And when you need someone to stand up for you, you’ll have allies by your side.

Get Started
There’s so much more each of us can do to empower diversity (like stopping biased jokes, advocating for gender neutral bathrooms, and getting past the friction to the synergy) but these seven ideas are a great place to begin. The best news of all is that you can start today, and change your company’s culture to one where everyone’s differences are celebrated, including yours!

Lee Wind, M.Ed. is a corporate trainer specializing in “Empower Diversity Now” keynotes and workshops. He’s active in the world of children’s literature, with an award-winning blog for teens at leewind.org. He also speaks to thousands of students and adults each year about Creating Safe Space, Smashing Stereotypes, and LGBTQ History. Find out more at empowerdiversitynow.com