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Defining Diversity: Beyond Race And Gender

Just about every medium or large U.S. company talks about its dedication to diversity, whether in a prominent section of its Web site or in its corporate mission statement.

But the definition of what, exactly, these firms mean by diversity is often vague.

Only 30 percent of human resources professionals say that their company even has an official definition of diversity, according to a 2007 survey by the Society for Human Resource Management.

Beyond Simple Demographics

While diversity has traditionally referred to categories like race and gender, companies and diversity experts are increasingly considering a wide range of factors from age and sexual preference to disabilities and even weight.

"More and more organizations define diversity really broadly," says Eric Peterson, who works on diversity issues for SHRM. "Really, it's any way any group of people can differ significantly from another group of people — appearance, sexual orientation, veteran status, your level in the organization. It has moved far beyond the legally protected categories that we've always looked at."

This is all part of a larger trend of moving beyond simple demographics when it comes to evaluating diversity. Increasingly, experts say, the field is becoming about how companies can best manage a truly diverse workforce.

"Height, weight, the sport you play, socioeconomic status — all of these are things we sort people by," says Laura Liswood, the secretary general of the Council of Women World Leaders and a senior adviser to Goldman Sachs. "If you and your boss play football, that's fine. If your boss plays football and you play basketball, you're subtly disadvantaged, because you don't get to know the boss as well as your colleague who plays football."

This doesn't mean that many companies are spending time tracking the sports their employees play or their height or weight.

But more and more firms are finding that paying attention to differences such as age is becoming central to their efforts to retain top talent.

"You have Gen Xers and millennials, whose definition of loyalty and what keeps them engaged [is] significantly different than for baby boomers," says Michael Hyter, the president of Novations Group Inc., a global talent development firm. "That's a huge diversity issue that, if you looked at diversity in the traditional sense, you'd miss."

Adding in all these new factors obviously makes the effort to promote diversity much more complex. But it does have the advantage of widening the debate beyond politically divisive topics like affirmative action programs.

"It takes the toxicity from this race and gender defensiveness and moves the debate to what it takes to motivate that 22-year-old in order to be engaged enough to stay longer," Hyter says. "You have to do business differently."

Hard To Track

Several key areas are likely to emerge as increasingly important ones for companies to manage.

Phil Harlow, the chief diversity officer at Xerox, says he expects that companies will have to pay more attention to religion and sexual orientation in the future. He notes, for example, that gay and lesbian employees at Xerox have formed a group that has formal meetings with senior executives.

"The issues and sensitivity associated with the gay and lesbian community will be picking up increased momentum in the next few years when it comes to expectations and putting systems in place to support the sensitivities those groups have," Harlow says. "It will represent some significant challenges for how companies will deal with that."

Some of these areas are also very hard to track because of legal restrictions when it comes to employers asking about their workers' religion, sexual preference or certain other characteristics.

"Someone with a mental health problem or someone who is gay or lesbian might not disclose it," says Kathy Krepcio, who runs a project on disabilities in the workplace based at the John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers University. "Companies might see themselves as undercounting, which makes it hard to measure the return on investment."

Affinity Groups

In some ways, experts say the ultimate aim of any diversity program should be to create a culture that produces and rewards the best work from every employee.

"These companies realize they already accommodate the diversity of people every day — whether it's more flexibility to help parents take care of kids or a screen reader for a person with disabilities," Krepcio says.

Of course, the expansion of diversity can be taken to extremes. Some companies have formed many of these so-called affinity groups for employees of different ethnicities or nationalities, only to decide later it may have been a mistake.

"Some companies have dozens of affinity groups. Other people who have gone down that road decide they've gone too far," says Carl van Horn, the director of Rutgers' Heldrich Center. "Everybody has multiple identities. You're a woman, a parent, a gay, a disabled person, and of Hispanic origin, so which group do you go to?"

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Kevin Whitelaw