As conversations about race go on across the nation, it’s not uncommon to hear the word diversity tossed around. Many businesses are either recognizing the value of hiring a diverse staff, or they are feeling the pressure of social responsibility to recruit underrepresented minorities to their teams. Several design and tech companies have faced severe criticism and have been called to task for their lack of diversity year after year.
Studies show that work teams of different backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives contribute positively to a business’ bottom line. “Employees that reflect a community are more likely to understand its dynamics and create better products,” writes Melanie Maxwell of the International Business Times. While it is great to invite different perspectives to the table, that table needs to be set before anyone can take a seat. Is the work environment one in which they can stay in and thrive? Are companies ready to actually hear what they have to say and involve them in major decisions? Or are they just there to fill a quota and make the company look good? Many people would agree that diversity is needed, but what about inclusion?
Michael Hardy, an experience designer based in Santa Monica, CA, says, “Diversity is the mix. Inclusion is the extent to which you will allow that diversity to exist. [It says to employees that] ‘we accept who you are and we are actively making efforts to accommodate your needs. According to Hardy, “The three main components of inclusion are access, acceptance, and safety.”
In May 2016, Michael Hardy spoke at the Information Architecture Summit on inclusion in the digital service economy. His talk, “#NobodyUbersInTheHood”, tackled disparity amongst urban neighborhoods that are not adequately served by services like Uber or AirBnb. “Diversity and inclusion shows up in the end product. We’re experiencing a big change in population demographics. What we make and how we go about making things as designers has to change. We have to make sure that we are including as many people as we can properly serve. If you hire diverse staff and create an environment of inclusion, your product ultimately reflects the wishes of the people you’re trying to sell things to or make things for. Hiring is one thing, but we need to start thinking about how we go about our design process to make sure that no one else is left out.”
In addition to access for the end users of products, there also needs to be access within organizations. Junior-level designers need access to mentors to help them navigate their career paths. Unfortunately, there are few black designers in senior- and executive-level roles, so the likelihood that a junior to mid-level designer will have a mentor of color within their company is slim to none. It is not an impossible feat, but it will take some patience and diligence on the part of the designer to build a career development support system.
“We tend to put a physical face on inclusion, as though only certain audiences are eligible to live under the umbrella of inclusion,” says Hardy. “But it’s not just what you see. It’s also behavioral. Inclusion can also encompass the cultural norms that are considered acceptable inside a work environment. As a minority, you almost don’t have the luxury to be weird. You have to suppress that.”
An article from The New York Times discusses how Google created an internal task force in order to study best practices for building a team. In its findings, it determined that team environments which embrace empathy and allowed for psychological safety, where people feel that they can express themselves without fear of repercussions, tended to perform better. In order for there to be an inclusive environment, safety must exist. A designer must be able to contribute, ask questions, learn, and fail without fear of being frowned upon.
“I’ve been doing a lot of reading on the skills gap. A lot of people are starting to pay attention to that. The skills gap asks ‘do people have the right education and the right experiences to match them to the hot jobs of today?’ [However], I think a knowledge gap actually exists among what we consider traditionally diverse audiences. ‘How should I conduct myself in an office or workplace? What’s okay to push [back on]? How do I take a smart and calculated risk? How do I make a big enough splash so that people actually take notice of what I want to do?’ I don’t think that we are taught that [as African-Americans.] We’re not really educated in that way. We’re taught that if you put yourself in a certain position, everything else will take care of itself. We know that is not true at all. You have to go big or go hard or else you won’t get to the positions you actually want.”
So what happens when the table is not set? People leave. According to Forbes, 89% of employees would consider lateral moves rather than be promoted to higher positions of higher responsibility.
Hardy wondered if he had the right kind of coaching or mentorship to position himself for a senior role. “‘Should I talk to this person? Should I go about it this way?’ Of course, I wanted to run with it and do it, but I just wanted to get some more senior voices. They kind of laugh at me now. They say, ‘you were almost in a way asking to do things that needed to be done.’ You don’t need permission. Package it up and sell it confidently because that’s exactly who you are and that’s exactly what we need you to do.”
“To create a more inclusive environment, I think it takes stronger emotional intelligence among senior leadership. [They] actually have influence on the people who are hired. That’s the big thing,” says Hardy.
“Give them permission. Provide the infrastructure. Offer support. Recognize their good work. That would be a huge standing order to promote inclusion a lot more in companies.”