Dimensions of Difference

The demographics of the workforce have changed significantly over the last four decades. There are many more differences in today’s workplace, which can and do create opportunities and barriers to inclusion. Typically, our lives are uniquely influenced by our experiences within each of these three dimensions.

Most people still tend to think that the term ‘diversity’ means ‘race and gender.’ That certainly was the primary focus of much of the early training in this area back in the 1960s and 1970s – because that’s who the new hires happened to be. Not just ‘new’ to being hired but being hired in new kinds of jobs.  Historically, women had worked as teachers, nurses, waitresses, salesclerks, and secretaries. Those from different racial backgrounds had primarily worked in non-exempt, hourly types of jobs. Most young girls and racial minorities didn’t grow up in the 1950s and 1960s believing they could one day be an engineer – let alone an astronaut (shout out to Christina Koch and Jessica Meir – for the first all-female spacewalk!).

In 1977, my late husband, Merlin G. Pope, Jr., coined the term ‘diversity’ to refer to the changing demographics of the U.S. workforce – which, in his mind, included everyone because we are unique and different in many ways. White males are as much a part of ‘diversity’ as anyone else – beyond just their race and gender. Like everyone else, their lives have been shaped by other factors such as their socio-economic and educational background, physical abilities, religious beliefs, etc.

It’s also important to recognize that how we see ourselves in terms of these differences changes and evolves over time, primarily in the Personal/Cultural and Organizational Dimensions. As an adult, your religious beliefs may change from what you grew up with. If you have lived and worked outside the country you grew up in, that often changes your ‘world view’ to some extent. Getting married, divorced, widowed, or becoming a parent for the first time tend to be life-changing experiences.

Some people think the best approach is to not acknowledge differences. Why is that? We hear comments like “I don’t see color.” “I’m color blind.” We avoid eye contact when we pass someone in a wheelchair in the grocery store. We are embarrassed when our small child points out that someone has a hook instead of a hand.  

The truth is most of us are uncomfortable with differences that we have had little to no experience with.  However, the reality is that most of us want those things that are important to us and part of how we view ourselves – our identity – to be ‘seen’ by others.  

What happens all too often is that we impact others in ways that we would never intend because we haven’t spent any time ‘in their shoes’ or haven’t been comfortable or curious enough to try to understand how that ‘different aspect’ of who they are impacting their life in ways that may be different than our own day-to-day reality.  

For example, I became a widow at a relatively young age and whenever another woman would say things like, “I’m a golf widow this weekend” (or hunting, fishing, bowling, football, etc.), it felt like someone had just punched me in the gut. I was just having another ‘typical day’ at work – and then ‘Wham!’ I was reminded of that thing about me that was different than everyone else I worked with. In my head, I knew it wasn’t intentionally said to hurt me. My reality wasn’t their reality. I’d heard that comment said before I became a widow and didn’t think twice about it – because I wasn’t one. Or, sitting at my computer late one evening reading an email from a woman friend – one of those funny ‘ha ha’ things about men and women. Halfway down the page, I gasped when I read, “What do you call a woman who knows where her husband is every night? Answer: a widow. Again, my head tells me this wasn’t intentional – it didn’t jump off the page to the friend who sent it to me and I’m sure it didn’t to any of the other women she sent it to unless they also happened to be a widow.  

My response each time was to withdraw into myself. Do whatever I needed to do to get back to an emotionally balanced place. I chose not to do any type of “teachable moment” for fear that would just put even more of a ‘spotlight’ on me or that, in defense, they’d label me as ‘over-sensitive’ or think “is she ever going to get over it move on?”

This was just one aspect of many things that define who I am, albeit a life-changing one. Think about all of the ways that people are different in your workplace and how many times, in the course of a day or a week, someone says or does something that doesn’t ‘land’ well on someone else.  

I think it’s safe to say that everyone would prefer to work in a respectful and inclusive work environment. Taking the time to engage others in conversations about how they ‘define themselves’ in terms of Biological, Personal/Cultural and Organizational differences is a great team-building activity and creates a more inclusive workplace.

Patricia C. Pope is CEO and Chief Creative Officer of Pope Consulting. She is a recognized subject matter expert with over four decades of knowledge and experience in diversity, inclusion, and culture change. She serves as the lead consultant on many of our client engagements and has primary responsibility for Research & Development. Her passion is creating new assessments/measurement tools, new learning content and training solutions, and innovative ways to build inclusive cultures.