Diversity from a U.S. Perspective: Learnings and Trends

by Lee Gardenswartz and Anita Rowe

In the thirty years we have been working as diversity consultants in the U.S. much progress has been made in creating more welcoming and inclusive environments, and much work still needs to be done. A number of trends are apparent that demonstrate on-going changes in the field, while learnings continue to emerge that set the stage for future work.


The Concept of Inclusion as Part of the Diversity Paradigm

When diversity first became part of the conversation in U.S. business, energy was spent on defining its parameters and not talking much about inclusion. When inclusion was mentioned, it was about getting people from various backgrounds in the doors of corporations. No more. Diversity and Inclusion are almost always mentioned in tandem and the implication is that it is not enough to admit and hire diverse candidates. Their gifts and skills must be fully utilized. Letting people in the door is necessary but is no longer sufficient.

A Broader Definition of Diversity

From a narrow focus on visible differences and legally protected categories such as gender, race, ethnicity, age and physical ability, the definition in most organizations is now a broader one. In the majority of businesses, diversity takes on a definition that includes a wider range of aspects such as thinking style, educational level, field of work, level in the organization, marital status, religion and seniority. This broader definition makes everyone part of the scope of diversity and draws all parties into the discussion of the dimensions around which there is inclusion and exclusion in the organization.

Generational Differences

With the reality of having employees ranging in age from twenty-something to sixty-something, the differences between the generations has become one of the most noticeable, commonly discussed and perplexing differences. Work ethic, technological ability, loyalty and career advancement are seen differently by each  age group.

While it may be common for Baby Boomers to expect to work 9–5 in an office at their desktop in the same organization for life, younger employees are just as comfortable working with a laptop at home or at Starbucks and expect to work for a series of organizations in a career that includes work-life balance. Finding ways to learn from one another across the generational divide, understanding the values sets of different generations and engaging and keeping young talent is an important focus of diversity work for many organizations.

A More Global Perspective

There has been talk of globalization for the last ten years, but for diversity practitioners, a global focus has become more real and pertinent in the last three. Our book, The Global Diversity Desk Reference, came out in 2003 and was in sync with the conversation of what diversity looked like globally, but it was ahead of the practice. There was much talk and very little action. Now that the world truly is functioning on a more global scale, there is more awareness of political, social, economic and legal systems, and much more sensitivity to the norms and cultural mores of host countries.

Sustainability Now Integrated into the Diversity Mix

Sustainability and its connection to corporate social responsibility is a new part of the diversity discussion. The emphasis on paying attention to the planet and how resources are used all over the globe has become a more intentional focus. Leaving smaller footprints and supporting local communities in areas of operation are all parts of an idea whose time has come.


Electronic communication and the internet, from email, twitter and facebook to blogs and websites, have influenced diversity in the ways organizations recruit, train and engage staff. Virtual teams may never meet face to face, positions are posted online and meetings held via tele- and video-conference are all aspects of operations today. E-learning has also become a more commonly used vehicle for training.

Attention to Microinequities

Blatant discrimination, prejudicial comments, jokes and slurs have, for the most part, been eliminated from workplaces. However, bias and assumptions still continue and the focus now is more on the subtler forms of exclusion that impact hiring, career advancement and opportunities. Because these informal norms and practices often go unnamed, they are sometimes difficult to acknowledge and therefore need an intentional focus in order to address them.


Organization Development Culture Change Approach

When the field of diversity was in its infancy, the emphasis was on changing hearts, minds, attitudes and eventually, individual behavior. As the field matured, the need to create real organizational change in the most effective way meant using an organization development approach. The most far-reaching, integrated and meaningful results are accomplished when OD is the method.

Sell the Benefits

The best way to ensure effective results from a diversity initiative is to sell the benefits at every level of the organization. At the executive level, benefits are strategic, focusing on future organizational goals and thriving in times of change. At managerial levels, they are tactical, about having the skill and tools to effectively lead, manage and groom the myriad employees who report to them. At the employee level, they are personal, helping people to manage the relationships they have with coworkers they see every day.  Answering the “What’s in it for me?” question is essential to getting engagement and buy in.

Need for Measurement and Demonstration of Business Results

One of the clearest learnings over these three decades has been that measuring progress and showing clear business results, while difficult to do, is essential. Measurement provides feedback that keeps the diversity and inclusion process on target and shows the impact in real business terms that generates on-going commitment and support.

Inclusion Means Involving Both Dominant and Under-represented Groups

For diversity to last and have impact, it has to be about everyone in the organization … racially, ethnically, and all positions throughout the organization. That means white males must be included in the conversations and processes just as is everyone else is.

Emotional Component

Diversity triggers powerful emotions. Because of the strong values attached to attitudes and the feelings people have regarding their personal experiences with exclusion, it is increasingly clear that diversity work needs to include attention to the emotional component. Equipping people to deal with strong feelings that emerge and giving them the skills to communicate effectively in an emotionally charged environment are key elements of diversity and inclusion work.

Real Change is Arduous Work

Accomplishing real and meaningful change is a demanding process that requires flexibility, adaptation and tenacity. It is hard work and it takes a long time. Persistence and courage cannot be in short supply. We suggest one caveat: do not even begin the process if you do not intend to follow through and take the road where it leads. Broken trust and dashed dreams are difficult losses from which to recover. Patience is required along with vision and the willingness to recraft goals as you go forward. It is demanding, but developing a workforce environment that is more inclusive and productive is worth the effort.

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Lee Gardenswartz and Anita Rowe have been consulting with organizations regarding diversity since 1977. They have co-authored “Managing Diversity” and several other diversity resources.