The (arguable) Value of Being Different

Both Diversity activists and rationalists have been relentlessly exploring and explaining the need to overcome monocultures – particularly in today’s complex business contexts. What began as a joint effort has become – at times – a fight over narratives, followers and the prerogative of interpretation. Less divisiveness and polarisation – even within DEI – is needed to advance our agenda.

The 20¦21>22>> Trilogy (part 1)

For understandable reasons but still unfortunate, we see the following current battle fields within our D&I arena:

  • Mixed metrics: How important is measuring representation versus root cause change?
  • Identity influence: What does (visible) difference contribute versus evidence-based insight?
  • Peer pressure: How valuable are symbolic activities versus systemic improvements?

In each area, current dynamics around forming opinions play a role as does the different world views and experience of different generations and geographies. These dynamics are discussed in separate articles that complete this trilogy.

 Mixed metrics: Will counting or listening make the difference?

Pointing to the absence of Diversity was the bizarre starting point of a societal debate at a time when proving both the existence and related relevance of diversity presented challenges. Since then, the political equality narrative has become undisputed inside the D&I bubbles. On the other side, however, it became a red rag for many of the privileged. To this extend, the sometimes-obsessive focus on representation has contributed to a fierce division into camps, where one side does not consider ‘being different’ enough of a reason to overturn an entire system.

This article shows what makes numeric targets a success

One reason for the backlash may well be that some campaigners have started to use comparisons that require more thorough looks and additional thoughts – like criticising the lack of generational diversity on executive boards or directly comparing the percentage of women in society with that of female CEOs. While I see the value of such discussions, I also see the divisive force that does more harm to the D&I agenda than it helps.

What would be a more balanced and constructive way to bring the current trends together? On representation numbers, I have developed effective proportional approaches that lead to both traction and buy-in. For these to be used, I am happy to sacrifice catchy slogans. The other important element is to include measuring the lived values in a corporate culture as well as monitoring the inclusiveness of processes and behaviours. Together, we create a powerful set of mixed metrics as explained in this article.

Germany’s leading business newspaper, Handelsblatt, has just two days ago covered the new and more differentiated DEI data approach at Adidas that follows these thoughts. Read it here. The article includes strong hints that listening to employees and other stakeholders in order to understand their perception and experience will contribute more to gap closure than continuing to count representation – and all too often claim that (any) progress is too slow.

“Metrics for belonging and inclusion provide leading indicators whereas representation figures, in particular on executive levels, are lagging indicators. Managers know when to use which of these and for what purposes.”

Directly related to the question how to define success in DEI is the (e)valuation of difference in interactions.

Identity influence: Look who is talking

Let’s be honest: The appearance of a speaker or a counterpart impacts how we perceive their words or behaviours. The other determining factor is context – and the D&I context has its own dynamics when it comes to the impact of visible differences on perception. As a white male engineer, I talk a lot about my privileges and how I use the positive bias I experience to lead learning processes and amplify marginalised voices.

This 2 min video provides an overview

While I used to be seen as a powerful ally, a new type of experience has emerged in recent years: Blatant rejection and dismissive behaviour, reverse sexism, blacksplaining and scapegoating. Some contexts may simply not be designed to accommodate my background and I am fine not be included there and then.

This article includes an example of reverse sexism in a supposedly safe space

I get, however, quite concerned when corporate stakeholders – in a professional context – mix identity-based perceptions or personal experiences with evidence-based insight and systemic approaches to organisation development. In the long-term development of DEI, the huge value of both anecdotal and activist input has always been apparent. At the same time, transforming systems successfully requires multi-layered diagnostics, an expertise to interpret findings and the ability to design development strategies that will both be accepted and impactful.

This article on the BMW Foundation’s Blog TwentyThirty explores this and other factors of future-related change

In order for us – D&I experts, practitioners and activists – to generate joint progress, we should deliberately join forces, also more mindfully. In client projects, we have orchestrated very successful exchanges of grassroot, subject matter and leadership stakeholders focusing on contextualising the input at the intersection as part of our core expertise. Not only should we be clear about the value each one of us contributes to the overall agenda, we should also be rigorous in role-modelling the values that we proclaim and demand others to observe.

This article includes real examples where this was not the case

Firming up the D&I agenda comprises decisions about which activities to start or stop, and which stakeholders or resources to involve going forward.

Peer pressure: ‘Doing DEI’ as an excuse or as a development?

Related to both aspects mentioned above (focus on representation and value of difference), we have noted a few trends in the design of DEI roadmaps in recent years. The good news is: resources are no longer an issue. Large corporations invest millions in well-intended programmes, and medium-sized companies employ dedicated D&I managers. Such activities were unimaginable 15 years ago (in EMEA). Alongside this development and in connection with generational dynamics, technological possibilities and social media, an unprecedented push for new tools has also occurred. This not only multiplies choice and opportunities, it also creates dynamics that are less helpful: group think, peer pressure or shared beliefs (in myths). Each of these might be reinforced in echo chambers or network bubbles, and can result in implementing activities that work in one context and not in others.

This article explores this further and references further reading

Identifying Overlap – Creating Synergies

With all the current public attention, C-level involvement and grassroot activism, DEI is at a very different place than just three years ago. Plus the covid-19 context. Managing the related complex dynamics is an extra task for D&I managers they might not have asked for in the first place. Nevertheless, it is up to us to make sure all stakeholders come together on the topic and agree on a way forward. This is not easy when considering the vastly different expectations and preconceptions of different groups as can be seen from the following:

Over recent years #MeToo, #BlackLivesMatter, #Pride or #IDAHOBIT have made headlines beyond social media and required companies to also position themselves in these fields. Although this should be easy for most Corporations – as they already proclaim values that are consistent with DEI – we have seen many different layers and forms of reactions, in particular related to Racial Equity and LGBTQ+ topics. We have also seen temporary, symbolic or superficial action from some and surprising silence from many others.

This article presents a TV programme on Racial Equity in Europe

The Corporate context struggles with topics that were considered to be ‘political’ some years ago. They have become central elements of the workplace and remind employers of their people-related commitments. Connecting the business agenda with workplace priorities is key in provide sense-making for those who may not see the nexus. Embedding DEI related elements in existing corporate processes is another way to ensure the topic is not perceived as activism driven by passionate individuals.

If some of this sounds familiar to you: What we have in front of us can be considered as a continuation of holistic D&I approaches that were started – reaching beyond initiatives – five to ten years ago. This article summarises a current presentation of elements that can actually help advance DEI further


Michael Stuber is The International D&I Engineer and founder of European Diversity, the EMEA level D&I pioneer, and provider of insight-based, international and innovative DEI diagnostics, strategies and solutions. Visit his company website


Following arcticle of this trilogy: Diversity Rules!