“Can a Leopard change its spots”? Jeremiah 13:23
I think it is fair to say that in my professional career thus far, there is one single term that tends to cause the most ‘discomfort’ and ‘uneasiness’ when raised for discussion: the term ‘diversity’. Indeed, when at client meetings and engagements I have introduced myself as a ‘diversity and talent management consultant’, I often notice the sharp intake of breathe that tends to follow – as the first part of my job title (note not the second part) is taken in and digested. And this experience appears not to just be mine. It was only last week a business partner suggested that he might consider changing the name of his business, removing the word ‘diversity’ as according to him, it might constitute the reasons for the reduced client engagement currently being experienced.
Isn’t it paradoxical that that which is at the very essence of who we are as human beings, is at one and the same time, that which gives us the most ‘discomfort’ and ‘uneasiness’??! My Mother once said to me: “You will only find out what true love is Jude when you have a child and become a parent. That is when you’ll realise that true love is also intense pain”.
So, what is it about ‘diversity’ that rubs us up the wrong way such that some advocate for the term to be changed? Is it the statements below which are often provided as key reasons?
- The compliance driven approach of equality legislation which has created the impression that diversity is about ‘box-ticking’
- The emphasis on particular ‘strands’ or ‘protected characteristics’ assists create the air of ‘exclusivity’ rather than ‘inclusivity’
- The politically correct approach taken by governments, equality watch dogs and equality experts who have consistently pitched diversity to be about ‘minorities’ without proactively recognising and engaging the needs of ‘the majority’
- The focus on policy and the stick of compliance by equality practitioners effectively assured that diversity was positioned outside the mainstream of organisational functions, and therefore not recognised as strategically important.
- The implicit expectation that in order to be a diversity consultant, the prerequisite is that one is either a woman, black, has a disability, is gay or has a ‘vested interest’ in issues dealing with ‘the disadvantaged’
- The inherent fear of ‘difference’, ‘culture change’ and the moral call to individual responsibility
A short trip down memory lane may suffice here:
The term ‘diversity’ comes from the Latin ‘diversitas’ interpreted as “the quality of being diverse” from as far back as the 14th century. However, even at the time, the term created some controversy as it had a further ‘edge’ to its fullest interpretation. For it was also interpreted as meaning “unique feature”, “oddness”, going as far as being synonymous with “wickedness”, and even “perversity”. Indeed, the famous 14th century poet, Chaucer, interpreted “diversite” as a variant form based on dialectic differences arising out of his fear of attempts to translate his poems into other languages – something he did not want to happen as he believed it would negatively impact the original meaning of his poems! Indeed, for him, “change and diversity” were enemies to avoid…in this specific sense.
But it wasn’t only society that struggled with the term. In the medieval period, the Church controlled state had immense difficulties explaining ‘the intricacies of diversity’ in the Christian doctrine of the ‘One God’ – or the ‘Three in One’ controversial dogmatic teaching. Referred to as the ‘Trinitarian controversies’, resolving the question of diversity in the ‘God-head’ began as far back as the 2nd century, causing uneasiness all the way to the Reformation in the 16th century, through to the age of reason, otherwise known as the Enlightenment period.
Indeed, it is interesting that renowned and respected thinkers like John Locke, an 18th century British philosopher who is known to have influenced the fundamentals of the American constitution, thought that diversity was so intricate and fundamental to human nature that human beings were simply and literally a series of distinct diverse events and thought processes linked together by what he called ‘consciousness’.
And still the story of the term continues…
So, viewed from a historical lens, the ‘issues’ that the term ‘diversity’ has created are not unknown. They are a fundamental part of human history and have been around for a long time in varying shapes and forms. Indeed, I think that these ‘issues’ are only symptomatic of the inherent challenge we face as human beings who live with the reality of difference – imposed from within ourselves as well as through our interaction with others. Being able to positively manage difference or what I call the ‘dialectic of opposites’ in all aspects of societal life (including the workplace, etc) in such a way as to strike a balance or equilibrium, requires a conscientious response that is all about respecting individuality and promoting humanity.
I have been watching ‘Big Brother’ on Channel 5 with interest – and unashamedly so! I particularly enjoy ‘Nomination Days’. Housemates always tend to nominate someone to leave the house they either have not taken time to get to know, or have not had meaningful interactions with – and within this context tend to slate the nominated person based on assumptions of their personality, etc. Fast-forward a week later, I do find it interesting that when nominations come round again, and at which point they have engaged with the housemate they hadn’t previously engaged, not only is the person in question not nominated but the views expressed of them change to positive glowing ones.
It is not the term diversity that needs changing; it is our perception and understanding of it. Diversity is what we are – its stems directly from our humanity and we are all necessarily ‘caught up’ in it. Its paradoxical nature points to a whole range of unforeseen and unperceived opportunities and possibilities which are attainable (in the workplace – and beyond) if, and only if, the paradox – that is the double edged sword – is wielded carefully and successfully toward productive and competitive business benefits.
Should we change the term ‘diversity’ to something else? Absolutely not, I can hear myself scream! It is what it is. We should embrace it for what it is…can a Leopard change is spots??
Jude-Martin is Director of Diversity is…a consultancy focused on providing a fresh and innovative approach to diversity through the provision of services covering Strategy, Assessment, and Development for ensuring effective people management in the 21st century global business context.