Is D&I Really
About Race
and Gender?

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Diversity leaders should address anything that leads to greater understanding.

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and some other diversity practitioners engaged in an informal dialogue about the field and its future evolution. After multiple comments about “it” — the field — consensus emerged that the critical issue was the need to define “it.” Many participants saw race and gender as the heart of the field.

Another practitioner argued that while multiple dimensions of diversity existed, priority focus should be placed on race and gender. In his presentation, he reasoned that if these tough issues were resolved, useful lessons could be gained for application with other dimensions. Both of these perspectives implicitly raise the question, exactly, what is “it?”

The field of D&I is really about race and gender, plus any other mixtures characterized by differences, similarities, related tensions and complexities.

One observer of the field noted that while a lot of definitions refer to all kinds of diversity dimensions, in practice, the emphasis is on race, gender and the numbers. So is “it” really race and gender?

A divisional president addressed a cross-functional gathering of the ranking leaders in her functional units. In response to persistent bickering across the departments, she loudly and pointedly admonished the officers to remember “that the enemy is outside.” So is “it” really cross-functional integration and team building?

One company president bemoaned that despite intense retention efforts, only one of the officers of a recently acquired corporation elected to remain after the purchase was consummated. He also remarked on the difficulties of integrating the cultures of the organizations. So is “it” really about the integration of acquisitions and mergers?

A marketing vice president struggled to develop strategies for a portfolio of products with different brand strengths and remaining life expectancies. Particularly challenging was the task of introducing and advancing new products without compromising the flagship offering. So is “it” really the management of product life cycles?

At a global meeting of company leaders from around the world, one senior officer located in a United States corporate headquarters shouted at his colleagues abroad, “What do you people want?” This was in response to what he perceived as unjustified complaints about the home office. So is “it” really managing a global operation?

A political leader expressed dismay that a local election had become so divisive within the community and also within his party. He feared he and his colleagues might not be able to repair the damage. So is “it” the management of political campaigns and parties?

Each of the scenarios above is about a diversity issue. Each deals explicitly or implicitly with differences, similarities, related tensions and complexities. And each deals with diversity management, making quality decisions in the midst of differences, similarities, related tensions and complexities. What can be gained by considering these disparate situations under the generalized definitions of diversity and diversity management?

For one thing, these generalized definitions highlight where chief diversity officers (CDOs) may add additional value in support of their organizations’ goals; enhanced contribution would stand CDOs in good stead as they seek to maintain and expand their work. Key here is to make certain they possess tools that go beyond race and gender.

Another benefit of these generalized definitions is that they suggest and broaden options for where CDOs can search for best practices. For example, these definitions indicate that functional integration literature dating back to early managerial theorists may be worth exploring. Such exploration will reveal that, in the 1960s and the 1970s, theorists and researchers provided insights about the tension and ambiguity that accompany diversity, as well as prescriptions to design integrative devices. CDOs seeking to broaden their arsenal of tools to foster cohesiveness and unity of purpose in the midst of diversity would benefit from a review of this body of writings. Further, these learnings could lead to innovations in the traditional areas of race and gender.

Finally, these generalized definitions may provide an umbrella under which various approaches to diversity can be organized. Any steps toward cohesiveness in the field would foster its evolution.

So, yes, “it” is really race and gender, plus any other mixtures characterized by differences, similarities, related tensions and complexities. Understanding the broader “it” will lead to greater understandings with specific “its.”

This story originally appeared in Human Capital Media’s Diversity Executive.

The late R. Roosevelt Thomas Jr. was a thought leader in the field of diversity, CEO of Roosevelt Thomas Consulting & Training, founder of the American Institute for Managing Diversity and author of six books including “Redefining Diversity.” These are only a few of his many accomplishments. To comment, email