For Law Students


Join Now

‘Diversity and Inclusion’: Understanding buzzwords and moving beyond them toward innovation

Share:
Diverse Innovation Staff

The words “diversity” and “inclusion” (as well as “equity” and “justice”) are often buzzwords in today’s workplace, on social media, and in classrooms across law and other graduate schools across the country. For those who come from historically (and currently) marginalized backgrounds, especially people of color, women, LGBTQ+ people, and people with disabilities, among many other groups, and those who care about advancing these groups and undoing historical legacies, these words aren’t meant to be thrown around lightly.

What is “Diversity and Inclusion”?

Diversity and Inclusion (henceforth referred to as “D&I”), is a discipline, profession, and way of looking at workplace practices that is constantly in flux. For the uninitiated, diversity is a noun. It is not an adjective (for example, a single person cannot be “diverse”).

In a workplace or school context, it refers to variety, differences, and a mixture—in theory, “diversity” should mean that there is no singular nor default way of being, looking, or acting within a group. In actuality, diversity is meaningless without additional checks and balances in the form of inclusion (though more than just inclusion is needed—more on that later).

While inclusion is also a noun, it is one that explicitly represents a verb: to include. In a workplace or school context, it conjures up other similar action verbs—engaging, belonging, connecting, reaching out—all of which are somewhat nebulous. D&I consultant, lawyer, and the current VP of Inclusion Strategy at Netflix, Vernā Myers sums up these two words with a more tangible visual: “diversity is being invited to the party, inclusion is being asked to dance” (you can read more of Myers’s work in her ABA-published books, Moving Diversity Forward: How to Go from Well-Meaning to Well-Doing [ABA 2012] and What If I Say the Wrong Thing? 25 Habits for Culturally Effective People [ABA 2014]).

More than words

In recent years, it has become more and more popular (and easier) for corporations, schools, and organizations to tout programming, events, and activities that uncritically portray visual diversity (think a stock photo of people with varying skin tones, ages, races, abilities, genders, etc.)  as clear evidence of their commitment to being an inclusive organization (and by extension, a positive place to work or learn).

However, as anyone who works with strategic planning, organizational development, or even just training and educating will know, programming and activities are just a singular component of organizational change. As much as leaders might emphasize D&I, where, in a best case scenario, people from different backgrounds are invited to a party and asked to dance, there is little questioning of the source of the situation, the why behind organizations’ need for D&I efforts in the first place. To extend Myers’s analogy, few are asking who started the party, and why were certain people not invited to the party—let alone asked to dance—prior to this point in our cultural moment?

“Diversity is being invited to the party, inclusion is being asked to dance.”

-Vernā Myers

The answer is complex for many. And even phrasing these questions as “complex” is a euphemism. That term as well as others has been used as justification to ignore the messy, uncomfortable questions that naturally come up when one goes deeper into D&I work, beyond the surface of simple lunch and learns. For example, recent data demonstrates that while organizations (and presumably, many of their staff) see diversity in and of itself as a value, and tend to use positive framing around diversity, they are significantly less likely to be enthusiastic about discussing race, racism, and other terms that expose inequality in the workplace. Sociology professor Joyce M. Bell’s article, “Diversity in Everyday Discourse: The Cultural Ambiguities and Consequences of ‘Happy Talk’,” gets to the heart of the issue:

“What is needed [argue public intellectuals]…is a simultaneous recognition of the power of difference in contemporary American life as well as an understanding of how difference is tied to deep and persistent inequalities.” (emphasis mine)

When organizations, communities, and other groups overlay their D&I activities with an understanding of these “deep and persistent inequalities”, that is called equity.

Beyond D&I: Practicing equity, intersectionality, and innovation

Certainly, one article, be it this one or Professor Bell’s, cannot capture the myriad (or should I say “diversity”?) of inequalities that exist in today’s current workplace and in law schools everywhere. The most innovative organizations, however, are getting closer to discussing these topics openly, and making drastic, necessary changes that prove their awareness of the roots of why D&I needs to be explicitly uplifted, discussed, celebrated, debated, and challenged—they are the trendsetters, rather than just the trend followers.

Some of the most obvious examples come from reversing gender-based bias in the workplace, such as extending paid parental leave to all parents (which acknowledges the historical and present lack of value placed on raising children and other “women’s work”), or reviewing job descriptions to remove words that have a gendered connotation (such as “charismatic” and “hacker”, avoiding pronouns, and stating salary ranges within job descriptions); some work to review “name-blind” resumes, which can also address race and ethnicity bias. That most of the money, emphasis, and impact toward D&I is still somewhat stagnant about addressing racial inequities specifically may be reflective of the deeper issues that effective and innovative D&I work seeks to address.

Failing to acknowledge the role of race, disability, LGBTQ+ status, and other dimensions of marginalized identities is indicative of how many organizations and corporations still manage diversity—it is segmented in a way that often does not acknowledge intersectionality, the term coined by Columbia Law Professor Kimberlé Crenshaw in describing the unique legal ramifications for Black women facing dual race and gender discrimination. The term acknowledges those at the intersections of marginalized identities—a Black + woman, a disabled + transgender person, a Latinx + Muslim.

For law students, legal technology, and workplaces alike, addressing diversity, inclusion, equity, and intersectionality all translate into innovation. The more explicitly organizations and the people who work for them seek to educate, openly acknowledge, regularly remind, and take accountability for their role in perpetuating inequalities, the more attractive they are to consumers, and the better places they are to work—for everyone.

Learn more about innovative D&I practices at ABA TECHSHOW’s Rise Up: Diversity, Inclusion, and Innovation on Friday, Feb. 28 at 8:30 a.m.

Safaya Fawzi Safaya Fawzi is the Associate Director in the Diversity & Inclusion Center at the American Bar Association. She works with volunteers, law professionals, and staff across organizations to support programming and operations that advance access for lawyers from historically-marginalized backgrounds. Safaya has made it her mission to affect change through impactful policies, social justice education, and starting conversations on challenging but necessary topics.