The Many Strengths of Diversity
Today is Canadian Multiculturalism Day and it marks the 30th anniversary of the Canadian Multiculturalism Act. And, as one who believes in our Canadian cultural mosaic, I think it’s a great opportunity to discuss the value of diversity.
Our Prime Minister released a statement today calling “on all Canadians to put our values into practice, and embrace the differences that make us strong.” Socially, culturally, linguistically -- even culinarily (as my palate -- and, sadly, waistline -- will attest), the values are clear. But there’s a strong business argument to be made for embracing multiculturalism and diversity -- and that’s what I’d like to focus on here.
One thing that’s stuck with me, since a Canadian Literature class in high school, was the concept that one of the fundamental differences between Canadians and Americans -- and, in fact, one of the defining characteristics of a hard-to-define notion of “Canadian” itself -- is the idea of the cultural mosaic versus the melting pot. In the U.S., you come to the country and you’re “American.” In Canada, we tend to embrace a blend of cultures: you are “French Canadian,” “Italian-Canadian,” or “Lebanese-Canadian.” The second-half of that designation is important; but we don’t exclude the former.
So what’s the value of diversity? It comes in many forms:
Diversity of Age
This often gets overlooked when we talk about diversity, but there’s a clear value (which we’ve spoken about a couple of times) bringing a “chronologically” diverse group to the table.
There are those of us who grew up in a world without internet, whilst others are digital natives who are accustomed to navigating the world in the palm of their hands. Both sides benefit the other -- younger people bring vitality, new ideas, and the latest knowledge to the table; older people bring the value of experience, a depth of perspective, and historical context. As long as both sides are willing to work and learn with each other, it can be an invaluable resource.
Not all new ideas are good; not all old ideas are outdated. Sometimes things have been tried and didn’t work. “Because we’ve always done it that way” is a horrible reason to do things, but a lot of time and effort can be wasted on “new” ideas that have already been tested and failed. Context helps and a blend of both can help speed up the process to success.
And that lends itself to the next point
Diversity of Experience
With varying backgrounds, we bring various histories to the table. Some may have spent years in university, obtaining doctorates; others may have just finished high school and gone straight to the workforce. Some started their careers washing dishes or waiting tables; others jumped right into the industry of their choosing.
(I will also state that anyone who has worked in a service industry generally understands the value of customer service -- and are usually nicer to CS staff!)
But that diversity of experience isn’t just restricted to education and employment. It extends to cultural backgrounds, religious upbringing, socio-economic status, and lived experience.
For example, conceptually, I can appreciate the challenges that people with disabilities experience and I can cross the Ts and dot the Is of AODA-compliance, but I am unable to fully “understand” the experience -- and that’s where the value of lived experience comes in.
We need to benefit from that diversity and share our experiences because we can be blinded by our biases. If a group of doctors only seeks the perspective of their peers, then tries to build a resource for the public, there’s a risk of misalignment. Doctors tend to like using official terms and big words, but if your audience is more conversational in tone (or, made up of a significant group of people for whom English isn’t a first language), then your message may get lost in jargon.
A behaviour, statement, or term that one may take for granted as commonplace, may not resonate with other cultures, religions, or age groups. Diversity can help mitigate that risk.
And that experience leads us to:
Diversity of Perspective
The sum total of our lives to date strongly informs not only what we experience, but how we perceive those experiences. And without diversity in representation, we can lose sight of how our ideas impact others.
We’re strong advocates for accessibility at Digital Echidna and I sit on a number of boards and organizations. Over the years, my perspective has changed because it’s been informed by others with lived experience. Now, how I view day-to-day things that I used to take for granted are viewed with a greater appreciation for its impact on people with disabilities.
These perceptual changes can be large or small. Anything from the much-ballyhooed “viewing decisions through a gender lens” at the federal level to making sure you find a way to support the dietary needs of an observant colleague travelling with you during Ramadan.
And with those new perspectives added to the team, you get to vet solutions against real-world examples. We don’t just all learn from each other, but we’re able to apply that learning to create more inclusive, fully formed ideas and solutions.
Ultimately, this leads to...
Diversity of Thought
It is from that combination of the aforementioned three that diversity of thought grows. New ideas can be formed and better, more inclusive, solutions can be developed. Homogeneity breeds flimsy, weak, and ineffective solutions. If you don’t consider outside perspectives, then challenges may arise -- not because they’re unexpected, but because you excluded the presence of others who may have the diversity of age, experience, and perspective to foresee them.
Or, in short, if I surround myself only with people who think, act, and experience live like me; who have the same socio-economic background and interests as me, then why should I expect my ideas to resonate with a larger group?
But if a solution is built upon a foundation of diversity, then there’s a greater chance that it will meet the needs of a broader community, stand up to challenges, and avoid critical errors of omission.
Locally, we know the City and the municipality are on board. We recently completed work on On the Move: Your Guide to Living in London and Middlesex County, Canada -- an interactive site designed to help newcomers looking to live and work here, as well as helping international students transition to studying in our community. Our community is strengthened by multiculturalism and efforts like these only reinforces our broader commitment.
Diversity has to extend beyond tokenism. It’s not enough to add people to your team to check off some box. Instead, diversity -- in all its forms (sex-and-gender-related, sexuality based, religious, disability, etc.) -- becomes a foundational element of growth for your company once you understand and experience the value.