Of backlash, beliefs, and attitudes: Diversity and disruption

Of backlash, beliefs, and attitudes: Diversity and disruption

Junko Takagi, Professor of Management and Chair of Leadership and Diversity at ESSEC Business School, looks into the diversity and inclusion issue and links the US election result to lessons firms can draw upon.    

Of backlash, beliefs and attitudes

The election of Donald Trump has put the spotlight on critical social fault lines in the U.S., and accentuated the gulf along particularly gender and race differences. What we are perhaps observing is the fragile nature of the diversity equilibrium, and the non-linear evolution of diversity issues. The term ‘backlash’ has been used to explain the defeat of Hillary Clinton – backlash against the ‘establishment’, backlash against globalization, backlash against diversification. We observe backlash when individuals and groups develop a sense of injustice from losing previously held privileges.  We can observe the limits of the impact of non-discriminatory policies and laws on correcting inequalities, and the complexity of changing fundamental differentiating beliefs and attitudes. This is in stark contrast to the diversity discourse of firms striving towards integration and inclusion of different diversity categories in their workforce. 

What are the consequences for firms?

Diversity – be it a woman presidential candidate in a country with nearly a 230-year history of male presidents, or a seeing-impaired trader in a bank – is a disruptive experience.  We are launched into seemingly unknown territory because we do not have examples that can give us an idea of what will happen.  While embracing the unknown includes adventure and discovery which can be a source of excitement, it is also a source of potential danger and anxiety. This sense of danger comes from not knowing what the impact will be of acknowledging and empowering difference on ourselves and on the status quo. Diversity is a source of discomfort because it questions the self – who we are and what we believe in, and established and taken-for-granted relationships.  

It takes guts – and reaction

In order to go beyond diversity to integration and/or inclusion, disruption as a diversity phenomenon needs to be acknowledged and experienced. This is where many diversity training programs that encourage awareness fall short. They do not provide the discomfort of a disruptive moment which provides us with clues about what are our true beliefs about different others, in the same way that swing voters who were not particularly favorable to Donald Trump may nonetheless have voted for him in the intimacy of a voting cabin in which they were directly confronted by a decisive choice between the two candidates – one male, one female, both around 70 years old. After all, how many 70-year old women can we think of in positions of power in comparison to men in the same age range? Only by having been confronted with our gut reactions, can we begin to understand where we really stand on diversity issues.  

Where there is difference, there is innovation

Integration can be rephrased as “treat others as you would like to be treated”. One way of managing diversity is to not differentiate and to treat everyone equally and alike. This is no doubt an important step to go beyond difference, and one that has paved the path for anti-discriminatory measures in firms. This perspective addresses the negative impact of diversity and has encouraged the creation of a level playing field. However, studies indicate that when we do not see difference, there is also a higher likelihood that we also miss out on innovation opportunities – one of the positive consequences of diversity.

Inclusion on the other hand can be paraphrased as ‘treat others as they would like to be treated”. In theory, this sounds like good advice, but can women really understand the male experience or vice versa, and how can we understand another’s under-privilege when we are not even aware of our own privileges? 

Disruption can be positive

From a diversity perspective, the US election may have been a disrupting moment for some voters. If so, rather than justifying their choice post-facto, they can use this opportunity to become aware of our underlying beliefs about difference, such as women in power, and think about how we can develop new reflexes. For diversity advocates this means continuing to promote diversity and equality; and for those who were surprised, this means trying to learn from this disruptive sensation. For firms that advocate inclusion, this means questioning their assumptions and processes to continue to identify inequalities, creating opportunities for previously disadvantaged populations, and identifying backlash mechanisms in order to include privileged as well as less-privileged groups. The road to inclusion is long and winding, and in no way is it linear. However, learning from backlash moments can lead to two steps forward, one step back as opposed to one step forward, two steps back.  

Watch Prof. Junko Takagi's video Diversity Disruption 

Useful links:

  The Construction of Workplace Identities for Women: Some Reflections on the Impact of Female Quotas and Role Models. In: Diversity Quotas, Diverse Perspectives: The Case of Gender (with S. Moteabbed). Farnham (Royaume-Uni) : Stefan Gröschl, Junko Takagi, 2012, p. 149-158 
  Introduction: Gender Quotas in Management. In: Diversity Quotas, Diverse Perspectives: The Case of Gender. Farnham (Royaume-Uni) : Stefan Gröschl, Junko Takagi, 2012, p. 1-7 
  Multicultural Identities and Culture Work. In: Diversity in the Workplace. Farnham - Surrey (England) : Gower Applied Business Research, Stefan Gröschl. 2011, p. 79-88 
  The Challenge of Diversity: examples from France. In: Going Diverse: Innovative Answers to Future Challenges. Opladen, Farmington Hill (Allemagne, Etats-Unis) : Carmen Leicht-Scholten, Elke Breuer, Nathalie Tulodetzki, Andrea Worlffram, 2011, p. 77-87 
 "Pour une approche sociologique de la "diversité"" (J. Takagi), la revue internationale et stratégique , May 2009, Vol. Spring 2009, Issue 73, p. 109‑112 


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