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3 things that might be missing from your inclusion efforts

For inclusion efforts to be effective, they must be intersectional, comprehensive, and embedded.

3 things that might be missing from your inclusion efforts
[Photo: AndreyPopov/iStock]

Working in diversity and inclusion since the 1990s, I’ve seen more than 25 years’ worth of successful and failed diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB) interventions.

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Let’s start with an example based on a real-life situation that illustrates the dangers of poorly executed DEIB work. “Jasmine” was excited to participate in her firm’s women’s advancement initiative and the required training. She arrived at the company’s brand-new training facility early. It was a “good day” and she decided to use her braces but not her wheelchair. Unfortunately for Jasmine, neither would work well in the training suite.

The “networking room” was furnished with high tables and slippery, hard-to-get-into chairs. Jasmine ended up standing. It hurt, but at least she could speak with people at face level, which would be impossible from her wheelchair.

Afternoon activities were held in the “ideation studio,” which was outfitted with floor cushions. Jasmine could not get down to sit on them. Facility personnel finally offered her a beanbag. But by then, Jasmine had already decided to look for a disability-friendly employer.

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When Inclusion Interventions Fail

This company’s inclusion intervention had the potential to succeed.  

When employees increasingly voiced the need for improvement in equity and inclusion, and the data confirmed the lack of diversity in leadership, the company appointed a diversity and inclusion task force. Task force members brought both prior training and lived experience to inform this work. They also had some access to external consultation. This is usually effective—the internal engagement supports buy-in and provides crucial organizational knowledge, while an external consultation can help explore best practices from an objective perspective. After talking to employees and consultants and studying the data, the task force produced a detailed systemic intervention plan. 

But the plan was rejected. Some decision-makers felt the plan was “too much,” “too complex.” The final, “simplified” intervention was a two-year drive of increasing female representation in leadership. The drive’s proponents believed it was “systemic enough” because it was to be implemented across all business functions.

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Before two years were over, many talented women left, and others were disillusioned and demoralized. Sadly, this failure was predictable. And preventable.   

Is there a “systemic enough?”

The term systemic in DEIB is used rather loosely. An “intervention” can mean anything from just holding one diversity training to complex multilevel models. Both limited and overcomplicated approaches can lead to failure, frustration, and fatigue. Failures create vicious cycles: Leaders do not invest resources systemically and prefer “limited” programs. Limited, nonsystemic programs fail. And more people lose faith. Research reveals that 39% of C-level leaders believe that DEIB is a waste of time and resources, and that executives’ perceptions of inclusion are disconnected from those of employees. 

What if there was a way to simplify understanding and remembering what makes an intervention systemic, but without oversimplifying?

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There is. The pattern of success can be distilled into three crucial elements. To be systemic—and successful—interventions must be intersectional, comprehensive, and embedded, or I.C.E.

An intersectional approach considers multiple identities and characteristics that may lead to exclusion or marginalization—and corrects for all of them. The lack of intersectional approach leads to exclusion of those facing multiple barriers as well as “forgotten” minorities.

Kimberlé Crenshaw’s research on Black women demonstrated that addressing only one or two separate diversity dimensions leaves many excluded. Hence, integrating intersectionality is the key to a systemic intervention. Multiple aspects of diversity and marginalization should be considered.

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In our example, Jasmine was provided with a ladder over a gender barrier. But she also needed a ramp over a disability barrier. An intersectional approach would address this by considering disability, pregnancy, neurodiversity, and other characteristics, needs, and complex intersectionalities from the start.

However, just one ladder—or one ramp—would not be enough. Interventions must also be comprehensive.

Comprehensive interventions address all elements of talent management, from job descriptions to work organization and succession planning. Non-comprehensive approaches create bottlenecks and ceilings—people from certain groups might be hired but do not advance or are not retained.

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For instance, “Marina” was hired by the same company as a potential fast-track leadership candidate. Soon after, her father had a fall and required care. Marina could have continued to contribute while caring for her father, but the company had a strong “face time” managerial preference that was especially important if one wanted to be promoted. Advancement was not compatible with caregiving. Marina left for a remote-first organization.

In another example, “Alessandra” was used to putting in long hours of work. She was willing to work extra-hard to advance. But as someone with a history of emotional trauma, she struggled with the stress of competition and cutthroat politics that resulted from the time-limited nature of the “promotion drive.” The company lost another stellar performer.

Navigating any workplace can be seen as a set of barriers. Some make sense, such as the necessity of skills and knowledge essential for the job. Many are arbitrary, such as requirements of “time and place” for jobs that can be flexible, or creating internal competition when collaboration is better for both performance and for employee mental health. When these arbitrary barriers impact some populations more than others, they create systemic inequities.

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For example, the lack of flexibility is a particularly problematic barrier for caregivers (who are more likely to be female) and for people with disabilities. Cutthroat environments are stressful for most, but especially disadvantage neurominorities, class migrants, and those with mental health disabilities.

A comprehensive inclusion approach ensures that unfairly disadvantaged populations will have a ladder to get over every discriminatory barrier—not just some. The intersectional approach will provide not just ladders but also ramps to meet the needs of every disadvantaged group.

But ladders and ramps can be removed, and barriers of systemic inequities would still be there. Even if every unfair barrier has a ladder or a ramp, new management can easily take these additions away. Add-on programs rarely last.

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Embedding inclusion in organizational functioning means inclusion by design, rather than add-on programs that can easily be cut when a champion leaves or “inclusion fashion” changes. The lack of embeddedness means intervention is unlikely to last.  

In our example, when the champion of women’s advancement left the company, the goal of female representation in managerial ranks was abandoned, along with women’s leadership development training and mentoring. The women’s promotion ladder was taken away, even as some were in mid-climb. That led to the loss of trust among those who believed the program would have improved their lives, and those who simply observed the failure. The same often happens when individuals championing any add-on program—be it focused on first-generation college graduates, women of color, or veterans—leave.

Embedded inclusion involves creating barrier-free organizations, which are equitable by design. Talent processes are scaffolded for equity, participation, transparency, and continuous improvement with valid measurement and the use of specific and work-related evaluation criteria.  

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Systemic inclusion takes work. It requires removing barriers invisible to decision-makers who have not personally struggled with physical and mental health disabilities, cultural exclusion, or other disadvantages by inviting participation from all intersectional perspectives. It requires addressing the full system of talent management, comprehensively. And it requires embedding inclusion in all organizational functions, to ensure that the change will endure. I.C.E. helps inclusion last.


Ludmila N. Praslova, PhD, SHRM-SCP, uses her extensive experience with global, cultural, ability, and neurodiversity to help create inclusive and equitable workplaces. She is a professor and director of Graduate Programs in Industrial-Organizational Psychology at Vanguard University of Southern California.


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