From Diversity to Differences

By Judith H. Katz and Frederick A. Miller  The conversation about diversity has moved organizations forward in many positive ways, but recently the term diversity has lost some of the usefulness and power that it once held.   

The challenge today is that when people hear the term diversity they immediately think it is synonymous with representation, referring only to women and people of color. This has left many other groups, including white men, out of the picture. When diversity was initially framed and started to be used in the seventies, it was a reaction to the specifically targeted anti-discrimination legislation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The term was meant to be an inclusive term—meaning all dimensions of difference and identities. It was meant to differentiate from Affirmative Action, which targeted under-represented groups, mostly women and people of color. It was intended to focus on the myriad of differences that people have and the need to bring the mix of differences to organizations. However the more organizations and individuals began to speak about seeking a “diverse” candidate it became a code for Affirmative Action, and no longer a descriptor, of the differences all people bring.   

The reality is we are all different. Every one of us is unique. Each person has something of value to offer—a perspective that no one else has. Even people who grew up in the same neighborhood and are the same age, gender, and race, bring uniqueness and difference. Identical twins are not identical. So to define some individuals and some populations as “diverse” and others as not does not make sense.  

Also, over the past thirty years there has been a major shift related to how differences are seen and valued: We have moved from seeing differences that people have as negative (believing that people who were different from the mainstream were somehow deficient or lacking in skills and abilities) to neutral (the desire to be blind to difference as a way to counteract negative stereotypes) to now seeing and believing that differences are an asset. Now, many recognize the need for differences to provide 360-degree vision (Miller, 1921)diversity of thought, background, approach, and experience as adding value to our vision, enhancing creativity, and solving problems. 

As the conversation and comfort with differences expands in organizations, it is time to let go of the vestiges of the past. Globally, “diversity” is still seen as a United States-centric issue because it is still laden with the race and gender associations when heard outside the United States.   

Using the word differences to describe people’s value-added enables all people to be seen and become part of the conversation.

As organizations reframe the conversation from one of Diversity to one of Differences, it does not take away from dealing with the challenges we face because we are not all the same, including the challenges on the individual level (you and me), the social identity group level (people like me and people like you), and the organizational level (the institutionalization of the isms). In fact, it calls out for attending those mindsets and behaviors that make it difficult for all people to do their best work and make a contribution.    Organizations must face the challenge of having the mix of talent, background, and skills they need for business results. They will need to talk about the differences that make a difference within their organizations and what differences are needed for success. And, everyone is in that game; no one is on the side line…everyone is or needs to be included. Sad as it is many people in organizations have felt excluded at times because of some difference they bring or represent in the organization. This hurts productivity, causes waste, and results in an underutilization of talent that no organization can afford today.    When people feel seen and valued for who they are and how they can apply their individual and social identity group perspectives, experiences, skills, and talents in ways that contribute to the success of the organization, then they have the opportunity to do their best work.  

The irony of this critical shift from Diversity to Differences is that when our work in this field began, the concept of leveraging Differences was rejected in favor of assimilation and integration, a push toward creating uniformity—the melting pot. Successful 21st Century organizations, though, must engage in “new thinking” and leverage the differences that people bring in addition to their race and gender. By leveraging these differences, organizations can hope to achieve the 360-degree vision necessary for more effective and efficient problem solving and decision making. This is a critical organizational competency to navigate the turbulent waters of today’s marketplace.