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What About (d)EI?

Courtesy Of United Airlines' Corporate Responsibility Report

The latest episode of the decades-old controversy surrounding diversity stars Mark Cuban and Elon Musk. This week, they clashed online in reaction to United Airlines’ ongoing Corporate Responsibility efforts; in particular, they focused on the airline’s goal of prioritizing pilot trainees from some underrepresented demographic groups.

Without getting into the specifics of two billionaires publicly feuding about diversity in the workplace, I can partially empathize with both sides of the debate, as it typically goes. On the one hand, there are plenty of well understood moral, practical, and strategic reasons to ensure diversity within teams and systems. After all, the benefits to promoting diversity in the workplace have been studied and praised since the 1950s. On the other hand, singling out underrepresented groups can run the risk of fostering new imbalances, and taken too far can sacrifice other qualities needed for the health of the organization. Railing against unfair discrimination in the name of diversity is even older than our study of it.

One thing that is relatively new is the umbrella term DEI — Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, with frequent additions of B for Belonging and A for Accessibility. (I’ll keep using "DEI” for the rest of this post, but I’m also personally a fan of “DEIB,”, and Accessibility generally deserves much more attention than we have collectively given it.) Each of the acronym’s parts refer to different things, but all of them are interrelated. While I’ve found it useful to emphasize different pillars of the DEI framework in different contexts, none of them can flourish without the others.

Take, for example, inclusion. One way for leaders to promote inclusivity in and across teams is to make sure that each team member has a chance to participate in group decisions and other rituals. To do this, you don’t try to force everyone to act like an extrovert; you can (and should) make sure all have had a chance to weigh in, agree or disagree, voice uncertainty, or even demur… all with sensitivity to each person’s personality and preferences. And just like that, what started as an act of inclusion has grown to also encompass access and equity. In other words, inclusion, equity, belonging, access, and diversity can all reinforce each other, and add to a more vibrant and effective culture.

And yet, the acronym’s sequence of letters subtly implies a priority that emphasizes diversity over all else. And that may hint at a big part of the problem here. Now, I’ve seen countless instances of groups stating how important diversity is when it comes to hiring practices, without giving much talk or consideration to how to continue to promote diversity once the hiring is done, let alone any mention of equity and inclusion. This can often result in diversity without the greater context of DEI, a kind of checkbox diversity characterized by ambiguous pursuit of arbitrary distinctions, as if some inherent diversities (gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation) are superior to others, which are all superior to acquired diversities (experience, language proficiency, spirituality, political leanings, etc). If the pursuit of diversity takes priority, when are we to understand what it’s all for?

None of this is to say anything about what United is actually trying to do with their Corporate Responsibility framework. I’d just love to see us collectively de-emphasize diversity’s role in these humanistic aims. Let’s spend more energy on understanding how these important ideas can support each other, and help organizations add value to peoples’ lives, inside and out.


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