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OP-ED: Diversity in workplace is more than just ensuring seats for women

  • Published at 12:43 am June 14th, 2021
Women-working-office-Mehedi Hasan
File photo of women working in an office in Dhaka Mehedi Hasan/Dhaka Tribune

Diversity as we know it is often paired with inclusion

It is mind-boggling that most organizations still believe that their workforce is diverse because there are a handful of women in it. 

Diversity means having a workforce that includes women as naturally and as obviously as men. 

However, more importantly, the parameter for diversity not only includes women, but it encompasses diverse genders including cisgender men and women and transgender people, as well as race, nationality, ethnicity, religion, sexuality and physical abilities. 

It is also defined by differences in age groups, academic backgrounds, personalities, skill sets, life experiences, and knowledge. 

Diversity as we know it is often paired with inclusion. 

These two may be interconnected concepts, but not at all interchangeable.  

Tokenism as the pitfall 

In my own experience of working in and with the corporate sector, I can confidently say that many multinational companies still measure how diverse they are depending on how many women they have employed, without a further breakdown of other variants of diversity. 

The creative and media industry is generally assumed to have a more diverse and open workforce. 

However, if you employ one transgender woman in your workforce without invested efforts in sensitizing employees on gender diversity issues, this comes off as tokenization. 

Similarly, if you hire women but your work culture celebrates long working hours, and your middle and top-level management is exclusively male, then you’re actively working against diversity and inclusion.  

In the development sector there is a fierce lack of diversity in the top and upper-mid level management in most NGOs and INGOs, with mostly older cisgender men dominating the roles. 

The established cycle of hiring new staff also works as a barrier for young people in all their diversity trying to make a meaningful contribution to the development sector. 

I know of organizations working with Hijra and transgender rights, yet their top-level management does not include any representation from them.  

The need to research and reflect 

Before planning any initiative for diversity and inclusion, employers need to understand the inherent and unconscious biases they themselves hold or display, which may include conversations that encourage harmful stereotypes, attitudes that can be considered hurtful to people with diverse identities and backgrounds, and decisions that favour some but not all. 

To begin with, analyzing data of staff in our organizations, including age, sex, gender, ethnicity, disability, socioeconomic status, religion, personality type, language, sexual orientation, life experiences, thinking/learning styles, organization function and level, etc. could be a potential start. 

The next steps 

 A simple way for organizations to take the next step towards meaningful diversity and inclusion is an employee survey or a focus group discussion. 

- Is the top-level management mainly cisgender men? If yes, what can be done about it?  

- Is the human resource team only hiring top-graduate women? If yes, why is this happening?  

- How many newly recruited people are recent graduates?  

- What changes do we need to make for a workplace that is respectful of diversity? 

Taking the findings of such a survey, and analyzing them based on the company context, can help inform the basis of new diversity and inclusion policies. These can include, but are not limited to, the following: 

 1. Sensitizing employees about diversity: Addressing conscious and unconscious biases is a challenge that cannot be resolved just through one workshop, which is often held just to mark off an item from the checklist or to show donors and investors. Diversity and inclusion should be incorporated as a value that needs to be upheld by all individuals. Regular and honest conversations should be encouraged to enable them to face their biases and understand the “micro-behaviors” or daily actions that can be practiced and measured to improve inclusion.  

2. Dissecting organizational culture: Apparent preferences towards aspects such as traditional marriages and religious beliefs can exclude people who do not fit the box. This may be a small example, but a combination of such actions can create a sense of exclusion. 

3. Reviewing existing quotas: Hiring quotas may improve diversity but they do not automatically affirm inclusion. The focus on diversity and inclusion tend to vary disproportionately through the hierarchy, with the least number of efforts on the top-level management. 

 4. Limiting employee referral programs: Undoubtedly employee referrals are a good and effective solution to sourcing recruits, but these often lead to people referring someone who is like them in terms of ideologies and personalities with similar life experiences and socioeconomic class. If you are using such programs in the workplace, you can choose to limit the extent of it or also consider other sourcing options.  

We must join together – collective forces and resources can push for change  

Ensuring diversity and inclusion in the workplace is not an easy task. 

There are several challenges, a key one being finding the person with the right qualifications for a specific role who also has a diverse identity and background. 

There are a lot of peripheral issues that may always remain out of reach of organizations, like the quality of education in public and private universities, availability of training and capacity-building opportunities, channels to reach those who remain out of traditional ones, etc. 

A single organization or entity may not be able to make much of a difference, but we can collectively join forces and resources and set long-term goals for a diverse and inclusive workforce that is also skilled. 

Bangladesh may still be far from it, but we are known for our resilience and determination. 

I am sure we can catch up soon.  


The author is a passionate advocate of social justice, a consultant on gender, diversity and inclusion, and a Core Member of SheDecides Bangladesh 

The full version of the article is available here