The workplace is evolving, but is your organization ready?

Inclusion requires an individualized approach as well as thoughtful consideration and dialogue

Authors’ note: This new column is designed to help businesses meet the challenges of a workplace that grows more diverse by the day. We aim to offer new perspectives, empower allies and advocates, and help your organization make inclusion and diversity a competitive advantage.

I remember the exact moment my daughter realized she was darker than her mother.

We were at a backyard birthday party when a slightly older girl, about 8, came up and asked us both why my daughter's skin was darker than mine. My then 4-year-old looked at me, puzzled. I was no stranger to the idea of the question, but it was the first time I had been confronted by it.

When I explained, "Because her daddy's skin is dark," and "That's how God made us," the girl’s curiosity seemed appeased, and she returned to the birthday party fun. But as I watched my daughter's awareness of herself and her family subtly shift, it gave me pause.

I felt that same pause at a recent event celebrating the region’s budding startup ecosystem.

Anyone involved in high tech can tell you the industry is male dominated, with the overwhelming majority of that majority being white or Asian. And I’ve been told numerous times that these industry demographics are so because these are the people most recently earning degrees for the technical development skills that the high-tech industry needs. And while those may be the facts today, they are not a reason things can't look different tomorrow.

At a recent Google Developers event, when asked what could be done to make women more comfortable at developer events, one audience member pointed out two things that probably never occurred to most of the men in attendance.

First, T-shirts at trade events are almost always sized for men, and almost never feminine in design. Male geeks proudly wear their geek T-shirts just about everywhere, but the T-shirt status quo offers women shirts mostly fit for sleeping, not for fashion (and yes, I just suggested that geek T-shirts constitute fashion).

Second, and perhaps more significantly, the woman said that her interview experiences in the industry rarely gave her the chance to interview with another woman.

She wasn’t accusing anyone of discrimination, but those experiences sent a clear, consistent message that women are not expected to arrive and participate. While undoubtedly no one in the industry would say they intended to send that message, the net effect of these experiences adds up.

In cross-cultural-relation research, we call these experiences microaggressions: small but insidious communications that create distance between in-group and out-group members. Most microaggressions aren’t intentional, assaultive, or even outright discriminatory, but their effects over time communicate volumes to out-group members about what is expected of them, from them, and available to them.

Inclusive message

Back to that startup event. As the ceremonies wrapped up with acknowledgments, a male organizer stepped up to give the final thank-you’s. While he was one of several contributors, he offered gracious thanks to several community leaders, and then paused to offer flowers to two women contributors.

In some ways, it was a lovely gesture of gratitude. Yet as an observer, it appeared somewhat disjointed: The men are fine with a hearty "shout-out," which is assumed to be sufficient when you do your job, but the women need flowers to thank them for doing their jobs? What kind of message might this send to those women, and to women in the audience? What dynamic gets established within the team when this is how thanks is provided?

Am I suggesting the only way to send an inclusive message is to deny everyone individualized tokens of appreciation? Hardly. In fact, inclusion requires an individualized approach. But it also requires thoughtful consideration and dialogue. The key is seeing when the moment is right, recognizing when there is a difference in such acknowledgements, and identifying ways to process the multiple meanings an action might have for the various people involved.

After the girl at the birthday party asked her question, I pointed out all the ways my daughter and I were different from each other, the ways she was different from her family, and the ways we were all similar to each other. In some ways, this willingness to discuss difference – non-defensively and openly – explains how my daughter learned to think about differences she began to observe.

She has learned to choose language that is inclusive rather than alienating, and by not singling out others for their difference, I’ve watched as others have come to see her as a mentor.

How are you preparing those in your organization for this type of interpersonal leadership?

Loretta L.C. Brady, an associate professor of psychology at Saint Anselm College, is principal of BDS Insight, an executive coaching and organizational development firm. She can be reached at Eric Ratinoff, principal in The Mouse and the Elephant, which helps large companies prepare for the diverse workforce of the future through training and process improvement, can be reached through

Categories: A Seat at the Table, Workplace Advice