According to Glassdoor research, 76% of jobseekers say that workplace diversity is an important factor they consider when evaluating job offers.
But what is diversity in the workplace, and what does it mean for us in 2021? Why is workplace diversity so important? And what can a company do to build a thriving, diverse workforce?
Diversity in the workplace refers to the demographic diversity of an organisation’s staff. Current best practices around this topic focus not only on diversity, but also on equity and inclusion for everyone in a company.
The benefits of diversity in the workplace are numerous, and companies looking to make the most of them should focus on equity as well as diversity and inclusion.
In this article, we go into more detail about what diversity in the workplace means in 2021 and why it’s so important. We also offer some tips for nurturing a diverse, equitable, and inclusive environment within your organisation.
What Is Workplace Diversity?
Diversity in the workplace refers to the demographic diversity of an organisation’s staff.
In its simplest form, building workplace diversity means hiring people from a wide variety of demographic groups and backgrounds.
However, focusing on the face-value diversity of an organisation’s staff is not enough to nurture a workplace that is welcoming and fair to all of its employees. This is why diversity in the workplace goes hand in hand with equity and inclusion, which we will discuss later on in this post.
Workplace diversity isn’t limited to the popular demographic categories we tend to think of when we hear the term “diversity”, like race and gender.
There are dozens of ways people can differ from one another. All of these factors can contribute to diversity in the workplace.
However, discrimination and prejudice based on these factors can be corrosive to workplace diversity by creating a hostile or unfair work environment for employees who don’t fit a certain demographic profile.
These factors include, but are not limited to:
A workforce can be made up of people of different ages and generations, and should be equally welcoming and empowering to all of these employees.
Many people experience ageism or generational discrimination at work.
For example, young people are often put down by colleagues or even managers who believe they are not experienced or qualified enough to do their jobs well. Older employees may have to challenge the stereotype that they are not as tech savvy as their younger colleagues.
Many workers also struggle with generational discrimination. For example, millennials are perceived by many older workers to be entitled and lazy, whereas baby boomers are often stereotyped by younger workers as bigoted and conservative.
Citizenship and Nationality
This refers to where someone was born or grew up, and/or their citizenship status in the country in which they work.
Those who work in a different country to the one they were born or grew up in often face discrimination and maltreatment in the job market, as well as accusations that they are “stealing jobs” from citizens who were born in that country.
Many employees also face specific prejudices and stereotypes about themselves and the quality of their work based on the country they come from and their colleagues’ attitudes and beliefs about that country.
A person’s social class refers to the level of financial wealth they have now and grew up with, which influences the resources available to them.
These include tangible resources (for example whether an employee had a computer in their house growing up or could only access one at school or at a library), educational resources (for example, whether someone’s parents could afford private schooling or extra tuition), and social resources (for example, whether or an employee has family members who went to university and could help them through this process).
Prejudice against people who don’t come from wealthy backgrounds can lead to discrimination in the hiring process, as well as working-class employees who struggle to gain promotions or pay that is equal to that of their middle-class colleagues.
For example, a study conducted on British Labour Force Survey data finds that people from working-class backgrounds are less likely than those from wealthy backgrounds to go into elite professions like medicine, law and finance, even when they achieved higher grades at top universities than their wealthier classmates.
The study also finds that employees from working-class backgrounds are paid 16% less on average than their colleagues from wealthier backgrounds.
This refers to someone’s physical and/or cognitive or intellectual abilities and disabilities. For example, people with physical disabilities include those who are blind, deaf or hard of hearing, and people with mobility challenges. Examples of people with cognitive disabilities include those who have dyscalculia, dyslexia, and dyspraxia.
It’s also important to remember that some disabilities (such as chronic fatigue syndrome) are invisible. It’s not possible to tell whether an employee has a disability or not just by observing them.
People with disabilities also face widespread discrimination in the hiring process, as well as workplace environments that are hostile to them because they lack the accommodations they need to access the work environment and work effectively—for example, wheelchair ramps for a person who uses a wheelchair, or text readers for blind employees.
Ethnicity—which is different from race—refers to a combination of factors including a person’s heritage, nationality, language, upbringing, religion, and culture.
Ethnicity can’t be reduced to nationality, as many countries have a variety of different ethnic groups who historically resided there.
People of the same race can be of different ethnicities, and people of the same ethnicity can be of different races.
People can be discriminated against at work based on negative stereotypes about their ethnicity.
This refers to the members that make up a person’s family, as well as their relationships with and obligations to them.
For example, some workers live alone, some are parents, and some live with other family members who they help to look after.
Many employees face prejudice and discrimination in the workplace due to their family structure. For example, mothers of small children can be passed up for promotions they qualify for because people believe they don’t have the capacity to look after their children and do the job.
Women commonly face hiring, promotion, and wage discrimination, as well as prejudice and sexual harassment in the workplace.
Gender-based discrimination also applies to transgender men and women or gender non-binary people. Many of these employees are bullied, harassed or discriminated against at work based on the fact that they are transgender or gender non-binary.
Language and Accent
This refers to a person’s home language or first language, which may be different from that of their colleagues and the language everyone speaks at work. It also includes the dialect and accent someone uses when they speak.
Many people face discrimination at work based on the language/s they speak and their fluency or accent when speaking the workplace language.
People can also be discriminated against if English is their first language but they speak it with an accent or using a dialect—for example, if an employee speaks English with an accent perceived to be working class as opposed to middle class.
Mental health refers to the condition of a person’s mental health and wellbeing, and whether they live with chronic mental illnesses such as anxiety or depression.
People with mental illnesses struggle with stigma and prejudices that paint them as incompetent or malingering.
For example, one multinational study found that people with Major Depressive Disorder (MDD) experience workplace discrimination and that many employers have negative attitudes towards people with MDD.
This refers to the neurological differences between people which may contribute to them thinking or behaving differently. Promoting neurodiversity means welcoming people with neurological conditions such as autism, attention deficit disorder, Tourette syndrome, and others.
Neurodiverse people face intense hiring and workplace discrimination, with one study finding that 50% of managers would feel uncomfortable with taking on a neurodivergent employee.
This refers to groupings of people based on their physical characteristics and cultural background.
Policies that disadvantage certain people based on their physical features can also create a hostile work environment for people of certain races. For example, black men and women in many countries face dress code restrictions that limit how they can wear their hair and have even been dismissed for wearing certain hairstyles, while their white colleagues are not treated in this way.
Racial discrimination in the workplace is often informed by various prejudices against specific race groups.
This describes a person’s religious beliefs, but it can also refer to a cultural background. For example, some people hold political views or practice certain cultural traditions based on their religious background, even if they no longer hold those religious beliefs.
Many people face harassment, bullying and discrimination in the workplace based on their religion or religious practices. This discrimination is informed by various prejudices against specific religious groups, and can take many different forms.
Some workplaces also form a hostile environment for people of certain religions, for example by hosting important events during prayer time or religious holidays, or by prohibiting certain forms of religious dress.
This refers to a person’s identity in relation to the gender or genders of people to which they are romantically or sexually attracted, and the romantic and sexual relationships they form with others.
For example, common sexual orientations include gay, lesbian, bisexual, pansexual, and heterosexual.
Many people who are not heterosexual experience hiring and workplace discrimination, prejudice and harassment based on their sexual orientation and the beliefs people hold about it.
The Four Types of Diversity in the Workplace
There are so many different factors that contribute to workplace diversity that it can be helpful to think and talk about them as falling into four different categories or “types”. These are:
This describes diversity based on the characteristics that people are born with which they cannot change, for example their age, gender, race, and neurodiversity.
This describes diversity based on factors that have a strong impact on people but which they can ultimately change (although this can be very difficult), for example their citizenship or nationality, class bracket, and family structure.
Organisational diversity measures the diversity of a workforce throughout an organisation, in all departments and job functions and at all levels of seniority.
Having a diversity of people on its staff at face value is not enough for an organisation to call itself a “diverse workplace”. This diversity should be present in each department, in each job function (if there is a large number of people who do the same job), and at each level of management.
An organisationally diverse company has diverse teams in all departments, and diversity at all levels of management.
Without organisational diversity, an organisation with a diverse staff at face value might actually be discriminatory.
For example, if an organisation employs an equal number of women and men it may on the surface appear to have achieved gender parity. However, if this organisation’s management team is comprised of mostly men while its junior employees are mostly women, this is likely indicative of promotion discrimination against women, or hiring discrimination against women at a senior level.
This describes the diversity of a workforce based on the variety of economic, political, and cultural beliefs it holds.
The worldview of individual employees can be influenced by numerous factors, such as their upbringing and life experiences. Employing people with a variety of worldviews contributes to an organisation's diversity of thought.
The Importance of Equity and Inclusion
Building diversity in the workplace is important, but diversity isn’t enough on its own to create a workplace that is welcoming to everybody. It’s also very important to foster equity and inclusion.
This is why conversations about workplace diversity tend to discuss diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) together.
Without equity and inclusion, diversity in the workplace can exacerbate the inequalities between people through inequitable treatment and a workplace culture that alienates people who are different.
Striving for equity means giving everyone in the organisation what they need to access the workplace and do their best work.
Equity is often confused with equality, although they are not the same. Having equality in an organisation means everyone is given the same resources.
Working towards equity, however, means recognising that giving everyone the same resources is not an appropriate solution when people don’t all have the same needs. In a diverse workforce needs vary from employee to employee, and the organisation should provide for the specific needs of each of its people.
For example, implementing equality in the workplace could mean giving everyone access to a parking space within a short distance of the office.
However, implementing equity could mean giving employees with physical disabilities or mobility challenges the parking spaces that are closest to the office.
Without workplace equity it can be harder for people with different needs to participate and succeed in the workforce.
Fostering inclusion in the workplace means making sure that all employees feel invited into the workspace and welcomed by their managers and colleagues.
Without inclusion in the workplace certain employees are more likely to feel unwelcome and struggle to truly engage with their work, and they are more likely to leave in search of a welcoming company where they are appreciated and supported.
In other words, without inclusion diversity in the workplace may be difficult to sustain—and your company may earn a reputation as a hostile environment for certain people.
The Rewards of Embracing Equity, Diversity and Inclusion
In addition to giving more people the opportunity to participate and thrive in the workforce, there are a number of benefits of diversity, equity and inclusion that organisations stand to appreciate. These include:
Embracing DEI can boost talent attraction, employee engagement, and staff loyalty. Having a truly DEI-friendly workplace can boost your company’s reputation and lead more people to want to work with you.
According to Deloitte, 83% of millennials are more engaged when they feel they are working with an inclusive company. Being a desirable and engaging place to work will also reduce staff turnover.
Having a more diverse staff means being able to draw on a wider range of analytical perspectives and a broader variety of ideas for innovation.
Having diverse teams made up of people with lots of different perspectives will improve your workforce's problem-solving and ability to come up with competitive new solutions.
A McKinsey study finds that companies with greater gender diversity are more likely to have higher financial returns than their national industry median.
Another study from the American Psychological Association finds that companies with the highest levels of racial diversity bring in multiple times the revenue of those with the lowest racial diversity levels.
Challenges to Watch Out for
While DEI is important and rewarding, it’s not without its hurdles. Here are some DEI challenges to watch out for.
Because building a diverse, equitable and inclusive environment in the workplace means providing for a wider range of needs. This comes with practical requirements that may require some advance financial and timeline planning, although any costs incurred can be written off as a business expense.
For example, welcoming people with physical disabilities into the workplace can mean making building alterations (such as putting in wheelchair ramps) or providing assistive technology such as screen-reading software for blind employees.
Employing people who are not citizens of the country in which they work can also mean doing a bit of additional paperwork to help people secure or maintain their work permits.
Sometimes having a diverse workforce can lead to misunderstandings and arguments due to people interpreting and communicating about situations differently.
For example, people from some cultures have a more direct approach to verbal communication, while those from other cultures may find this abrasive or rude.
Arguments can also break out between people over differences in belief or prejudices they hold about one another.
Workplace training sessions such as unconscious bias training can help people communicate better with one another and foster friendships across cultural differences.
People in diverse workforces can experience hostility due to misconceptions about them or the groups to which they belong.
One example of this is the idea that certain people have been hired to boost diversity in the workplace and not because of their competence and fit for the role. One study finds that this stigma can negatively impact people’s upward mobility and how long they stay with a company.
This is another reason why diversity and inclusion-focused training (such as for unconscious bias) is important.
Tips for Building a Diverse, Equitable, and Inclusive Workplace
Building an equitable workplace with a diverse workforce and an inclusive culture is a complex undertaking that demands a lot of work and research. We don’t have the space here to offer a complete guide, but here are some tips on how you can use workplace learning to promote equity and foster diversity and inclusion.
Provide for Everyone’s Learning Needs
One great way to practice equity in your workplace is to give everyone the support they need to learn and grow. You can do this by helping each of your people implement a career development plan and a personal learning plan, and working with each employee to decide how you can support their specific needs in this pursuit.
Promote Professional Relationships
You can promote a socially inclusive working environment by seeding and encouraging relationships between people across cultural divides.
For example, you could pair people with mentors and implement regular mentoring sessions to help build relationships across the company and foster upward mobility for all staff.
You could also implement random pairings for social time to help with team building and fostering relationships between colleagues who might not otherwise strike up a conversation. We do this at Learnerbly using Slack’s Donut app, which randomly pairs up colleagues for a virtual coffee date.
Prioritise Cultural Learning
It’s also a great idea to put learning about prejudice and other cultures on your staff’s group learning agenda.
You can also do this through fun activities like building a culturally diverse holiday calendar together to help everyone be more understanding and considerate about the traditions and holidays their colleagues observe.
In summary, diversity in the workplace refers to the diversity of an organisation’s workforce, which is made up of a wide variety of factors that include:
- Citizenship and Nationality
- Family Structure
- Language & Accent
- Mental Health
- Sexual Orientation
Diversity in the workplace can also be conceptualised as a combination of four different types of diversity:
- Internal diversity, which refers to the privileges or disadvantages people were born with
- External diversity, which refers to the privileges or disadvantages a person has but can ultimately change
- Organisational diversity, or the diversity of staff along various cross-sections of an organisation
- Worldview diversity, which refers to the variety of views that people can have about the world
To become a truly diverse workplace an organisation must not only have a diverse staff, but also see this diversity reflected in all departments and roles and at all levels of seniority.
It’s also important to look beyond face-value diversity to build a workplace that is both practically equitable and socially inclusive for everyone in it. This is why contemporary conversations about workplace diversity tend to focus on diversity and inclusion or on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI).
The rewards of embracing DEI can include:
- Talent attraction
- Lower staff turnover
- Higher employee engagement
- More analytical perspectives and innovative ideas
- Higher profits
Challenges to anticipate when working towards DEI include practical considerations, cultural misunderstandings, and hostility towards certain people.
Ways you can use workplace learning to promote equity, diversity and inclusion include providing equitably for everyone’s learning needs, fostering social inclusion through setting up mentor/mentee relationships, and helping people learn how to be considerate of people who are different from them.