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April 2, 2015

Diversity Work: The World's Unfinished Business

Diversity work, according to Dr. Marylin Sanders Mobley, Vice President for Inclusion, Diversity and Equal Opportunity at Case Western Reserve University, is the "nation's unfinished business." While, I agree that's true, I will take it one step further and assert, that this is the world's unfinished business. As a cross-cultural trainer, part of the work done in companies is not only teaching about US culture, but about accepting diversity in the teams as they exist in India. We look at how to include others of various cultures. As India has many varied cultures, languages, and lifestyles, cross-cultural work extends into diversity and inclusion work at the local level as well. 

Dr. Mobley kicks off her talk after the introduction by saying, "I believe in celebrating what has happened that is positive, yet I believe in telling the truth in the work yet to do." And, to this, I must also agree.

While the world has come so far ahead, there are times when we may feel we are taking one or two steps back. While diversity initiatives give us all a good feeling on the inside, that happy feeling we are creating peace in the world, there are times we feel we are going on or two steps back. Sometimes, people could argue, 'too much diversity and inclusion threatens our cultural identity, how can we remain true to ourselves, our culture, while including others?" It is indeed a delicate balance. It is this thought, a strive for this balance that initiated the spark for Authentic Journeys in the first place! Let's take a look at an example of this balance, and where it causes friction. 

The Balance of Cultural Identity in Italy
I recently met an Italian expat in Kochi, India. When I asked her why she decided to move to India full time to work, she told me an interesting story. While the social, economic and political factors of this story are complex and intertwine into a complex web, I will try to simplify it in the way I understood it. If I have misunderstood, anyone out there knowing more about this can certainly weigh in in the comments section below. She was telling me that she chose to come to India out of desire and compulsion. She felt forced to leave her home country due to some of the economic, political, and social situations there. In Italy's desire to be inclusive and open, embracing diversity, and immigrants, the locals are adjusting so much to the newcomers they are losing their jobs and their culture. The immigrants are willing to come in and have jobs at a much lower pay than locals. While this is good for the immigrants, it's forcing local people out of work, regardless of qualification. And, with the economy the way it is, to maintain a decent living standard is difficult for many as the cost of daily life has also increased so much (maybe the conversion to the Euro is also partially to blame). In some ways, it's easier for her to make a decent living and have a good standard of living in India, rather than her own country. Unfortunately, when inclusion and diversity is not planned well, this happens and it breeds resentment. 

It is also within this strive for balance, we want change. While sometimes we may feel we include others, we may also at the same time feel others do not include us. To this, I again quote Dr. Mobley, "What we cannot acknowledge, we cannot address." As she says, we all have blind spots. This will always be the case as we are humans. Sometimes in all good intentions, diversity policies have failed to include inclusion policies, hence the need for a diversity and inclusion expert. While institutes have increased their diversity or find creative ways to promote diversity, once the "diverse" employees are hired, the question comes in of how to include them into the larger group. How will they feel a part of the group? Will they also feel a sense of belonging?

Does Diversity Equate Inclusion? 
In the speech below, she narrates a story from her own life. When she was in college, Dr. Mobley signed up to live on the "diverse" floor of her university dorm. While this seemed like a good idea at the time, after she started living on the "diverse floor," she ironically felt alienated, excluded, unengaged and marginalized. Because of this, she moved to a floor more inclusive of her identity the next year and felt more included.

While students may choose to live on the diverse floor, they may not have known how to handle diversity. There were also no strategies taken by the dorm or college management to see that everyone was included. While they could check "diversity" off their list, they couldn't be an example for inclusion. As the title of the speech tells us, this is the paradox. It's also the irony. How can we promote diversity and inclusion at the same time? They do not always go hand in hand. What are some approaches to solve this? Dr. Mobey suggests affinity groups and employee engagement groups as a possible solution. I feel sometimes these groups are good, but they are also a double edged sword at times. They help the minority groups to feel a sense of belonging as people in those groups can hang out with like minded people, but the same groups should not become exclusive, excluding others. I wonder if there is a way to have affinity groups (for instance "Indians working at XYZ company") while still including others. Otherwise, a company could become a cliquey place. In fact, in cross-cultural training programs preparing Indians to go to the US, human resources managers and team leads aiding in the training needs analysis specifically have requested modules promoting inclusion and the danger of sticking only within the cultural or ethnic group. It's importance to strike a balance between hanging out with other Indians or Keralites (people from the state of Kerala in India) while trying to include local Americans into conversations, outings and breaks.
 We do role plays in the importance of using a common language, and how others may feel if we talk in a foreign language with other colleagues around. While these activities are good for removing blind spots, building empathy and self-awareness before going to the US, they are also good for those who never leave India due to the expansive cultural diversity that exists in India as well. 

These are always discussions in progress, and can cause us to become emotional as our identities and histories are tied up in these matters. I'm interested to hear about your experiences in diversity and inclusion in your office or workplace. 

Jennifer Kumar, author of this post is a cross-cultural trainer that focuses on inclusion in the work place, and how to bridge the gap between different approaches to work, communication and problem solving. Contact us for more information. 

Related Posts: 
What is an inclusion expert?  
Managing Teams in Different Parts of India 

Authentic Journeys: Bridging Culture on Virtual Teams

We help build effective, culturally competent global teams with focus on the cultures of the USA and India. Jennifer Kumar, Managing Director, an American citizen, has almost 10 years experience living, studying and working (owning a business) in India. Authentic Journeys Consultancy is registered as a Private Limited in India (Kerala) and an LLC in the USA (Salt Lake City, Utah). We provide onsite and live-online instructor-led courses, facilitation and corporate coaching.