Culture and Diversity, Equity & Inclusion
By Fernando Lanzer
The evolution of the term Diversity, Equity & Inclusion is rather amusing, as it reflects the evolution of the concept in Anglophone culture. As the concept continues to change and evolve, we should consider replacing the word equity with the more accurate “equivalence.” This paper presents the reasoning behind this proposal and describes how DEI is practiced in different ways, depending on the core values of different cultures. Huib Wursten’s seven Mental Images of culture (1), based on Hofstede’s framework of Culture Dimensions (2), are used as taxonomic reference. The case is made for being aware that DEI is far from being a universal concept, and caution must be exercised when moving DEI practices from one culture to another without proper adaption. Importation without adaptation may (and often does) result in frustration.
Key Words: Diversity, Equity, Equivalence, Inclusion, Belonging
Introduction to DEI in Anglophone cultures
The evolution of the term Diversity, Equity & Inclusion is rather amusing, as it reflects the underlying values of Anglophone cultures and how the issue of diversity has changed over the past fifty years in such cultures.
Initially, arguably around the 1980s, the term “Diversity” was used in popular culture to designate issues regarding the acceptance (or rejection) of people who are “different from our own traditional community”, notably in the United States and the United Kingdom. As usual in the past couple of Centuries, social issues identified in Britain and/or the United States are regarded in these cultures as if they were universal; this notion of universality is propagated throughout the world. Sadly, this mistaken universality of US/UK issues is generally accepted in most other cultures, notably in those that revere the British- American culture as an idealized standard that all should aspire to.
This is true for hierarchical cultures, which predominate in most countries outside Northern Europe and North America, and also for those egalitarian cultures that nurture a certain admiration for Anglo-Saxon values (the Netherlands and most Scandinavian cultures come to mind). Diversity became an issue labeled as such in the US/UK supported by egalitarianism (typical of Contest Cultures (3) such as the US and UK) and driven by the existing race discrimination in both countries.
The triggers that caused diversity to surface as a widespread cultural issue were basically the cultural revolutions of the 1960s, which questioned the existing values of so-called Western societies with an intensity never seen before.
Race discrimination has always existed in America and Britain, as well as gender and age discrimination, the latter in the sense of “do as your told and respect your elders.” In the 1960s, the baby-boom generation came of age and started to question the established values of British-American culture openly. We saw the “Youth Revolution” take shape. Suddenly, teenagers and young adults became relevant consumers of music, fashion and art, driving commercial organizations to cater to these new market segments. Dissemination of the contraceptive pill caused a sexual revolution of customs, strengthening the dormant feminist movement. All this contributed simultaneously to the civil rights movements in the US, highlighting racial discrimination issues.
These trends converged towards Equal Employment regulations in America (and the UK) and Affirmative Action, which declared that there should be no discrimination with regard to race. And immediately, social activists added that this was not just about race but also about gender; religion; age, sexual orientation; and physical disabilities. And thus, the label Diversity issues was eventually coined in the 1980s.
The truth is that common to all cultures; there has always been an archetypical concept of tribalism; and of differentiation (and discrimination) between “our tribe” (and customs) and “other tribes.” This is at the root of racism and of every kind of discrimination: “our tribe, our people, and our values” against anybody who does not belong to “our tribe.”
From Pre-History to the age of “post-truth” in the 21st Century, tribal archetypes still tremendously influence our behavior and thinking, though often unconsciously. They are behind the newly popular label of “unconscious bias.” Everyone categorizes people in different ways without being aware of it, forming stereotypes that most often are applied to people identified as “being from a different tribe.”
It was also in the 1980s that Hofstede’s work (4) gained greater dissemination and acceptance. And with it, the incorporation into the Diversity label. Thus, it became important to not discriminate also based on cultural background. This was often referred to as “ethnicity,” a term often used as an euphemism for race.
With this increased awareness of cultural values as a Diversity issue came the awareness in the British-American cultural commonwealth that simply valuing diversity was not enough. The concern about equity came to the surface. It was necessary to ensure that different people were given access to their rights in a community and that they should not be treated as second-class citizens. So, diversity in popular culture began being referred to as “D&E”, standing for Diversity and Equity.
Although immensely popular and broadcast worldwide, this notion might have benefited from a better choice of words. If we consider the intended meaning of the Equity label, probably using the term “Equivalence” could have been a better choice since the idea was (and still is) that people are different. Yet, no one should be a priori regarded as having more value than another person. This notion of equivalence is an integral part of the so-called Network Cultures (5), as described by Wursten. In such cultures, diversity is highly valued, along with the notion that we are all different. Yet, no one has intrinsically more value than anybody else, not even in terms of meritocracy. The latter is highly cherished in cultures that score high on Hofstede’s Masculinity dimension, creating an interesting consequence regarding D&E. Everyone should be regarded as equal at the starting line of competition (such as in equal opportunity employment). Still, those who perform better (the winners of a competition) should be recognized as rightfully standing out from the others and deserving differentiated status and recognition. Not so in Network Cultures, where standing out is frowned upon and where Diversity and Equivalence are valued even when differences in performance may occur.
A few years go by, and the label D&E is regarded as coming short of what society needs. The notion of inclusion gains prominence as people consider that people who are different from a community standard should be included as an integral part of the community, mixing with it, rather than forming ghettos within communities, which are actually sub-communities segregated inside a larger community. Robert Gibson (6) provides some examples in his book Bridge the Culture Gaps, and other examples have been provided by policymakers in Spain, where to promote the integration of disabled individuals allegedly, special tax incentives were implemented to create organizations specifically to employ people with physical disabilities. The idea was to create work opportunities for such individuals. However, in practice, this meant clustering them into these “special purpose” institutions, which still set them apart from other “normal” organizations and kept them segregated from people without disabilities.
Inclusion came to mean integrating different people with everybody else everywhere rather than restricting them to ghettos and/or special-purpose institutions. And thus, D&E evolved into DE&I, standing for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion.
All this labeling, of course, caters to the Normative aspect of North American and European cultures, as described by Hofstede’s so-called Fifth Dimension (7), referred to initially as Confucian Dynamism by Professor Michael Harris Bond, who first identified it, and later as Long-Term Orientation (LTO) as it was added to the Hofstede framework of culture value dimensions. Normative cultures (who score low on LTO) have as one of their characteristics the fact that they tend to take social norms (often informal and unwritten, not to be confused with written regulations and legislation) quite seriously, while on the opposite pole, we find Relativistic cultures, such as China, Brazil and others who score high on LTO, where social norms are more fluid and harbor so many exceptions and depend so often on circumstances, that they are less often the subject of heated debates.
Contest Cultures (US, UK, and others) are quite normative, and therefore social labeling is often taken to extremes. The paradox is that DE&I is taken so strictly that it does not give much room for flexibility and adapting to circumstances. This means that those who do not observe the strictly applied social norms of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion end up being “canceled” or de facto excluded. This Normativism supports what the alternative right-wing political movements have called “left-wing fascism.” People don’t realize that taking anti-discrimination standards to an extreme creates a form of discrimination in itself. It might be wise to check whether, behind your “woke” mindset, there could be a form of tyranny in disguise, as in when the US and UK governments decide to “save” countries from their own cultures and impose democracy by force, whether they want it or not, by the use of tanks and machine guns. DE&I can certainly be a desired value, but imposing your own values upon others by force contradicts the original idea of promoting diversity as a principle.
Yet, DE&I continued to evolve in Contest Cultures; and now we see the addition of the letter “B” to the acronym, turning it into DEI&B. This makes it start looking more like the brand logo of a law firm or investment bank and borders dangerously on the ridiculous, again working against the original idea of valuing diversity.
The “B” stands for “belonging,” and the well-intentioned notion that “different” people should not only feel valued, included, and afforded the same opportunities as everyone else, but they should feel that they truly belong to the community that they have been allowed into, rather than feeling as if they had been invited into a party where they are allowed to move about, eat and drink like everyone else, but nobody talks to them beyond the minimum superficial greetings mandated by standard etiquette and politeness.
The feeling of belonging is a subjective one, though certainly real enough to be mentioned specifically in Abraham Maslow’s classic Hierarchy of Human Needs (8). What stands out is the need for labeling social norms in Contest Cultures to demand compliance with such norms. It becomes difficult for the non-initiated to keep up with these cultural codifications, revealing once again the paradox of requiring compliance to a norm that could be considered a standard for Diversity and Inclusion rather than a reason to exclude people from an “urban tribe.”
Of course, we know that cultural values often consist of contradictions and paradoxes. As Hofstede often said, talking about cultural values, in theory, is a bit like trying to teach people how to swim without water. In practice, reality is not as simple and easy as the conversations we might have about it.
Beyond Contest Cultures
When one manages to stray away from the British-American cultural commonwealth, one can see that DEI issues receive a slightly different emphasis depending on the culture in question.
When one mentions Diversity in Contest Cultures, the first issues it is associated with are race and gender, and notably equality in remuneration. This, of course, is linked to the emphasis on performance found in these cultures and the use of remuneration as a symbol of performance recognition.
Not so in cultures that do not link gender issues to recognition of performance. In Network Cultures, for instance, where the emphasis is placed more on caring and quality of life rather than on performance, Diversity issues are more readily linked to immigration and ethnicity because there has been a surge in the influx of immigrants and especially refugees into these countries over the past 20 years. Equal pay for women is an issue, but it is not cited so often as a bone of contention, compared to the frequent discussions about immigration and differences in ethnicity and cultural backgrounds. Similarly, pay discrimination regarding race is seldom discussed because race discrimination is much more nuanced when it exists than in America, where it continues to be quite a prominent issue.
In a Social Pyramid culture like Brazil, and being the country that received the largest influx of African enslaved peoples during the 18th and 19th Centuries, Diversity is most often brought up concerning race, but also the inclusion of people with disabilities is frequently raised. This is because the latter sort of discrimination was so commonplace that it was seldom regarded as an issue: it was simply denied altogether as if it did not even exist. Only in the early 2000s did it begin to surface, soon coming to the forefront because of the dire need to provide accessibility and acceptance in the labor workforce. Similarly, age discrimination is so rampant in the labor market that it is widely regarded as normal and accepted as “that’s just the way it is:” when people reach their forties, they simply find it very hard to be hired since there is a big influx of young people into the labor market and not enough jobs to go around. Only very recently has age discrimination begun to be questioned, and that seems to be the demographics of the country are slowly changing: the average age of the population is getting older, and enough people are finding themselves in situations of discrimination, so their many voices are being heard. Fifty years ago, 50% of the Brazilian population was below the age of 18. Now, it is 26%. (9)
In France, a Solar System type of culture, according to Wursten (10), the separation of the institutions of Church and State has been a key issue often discussed since the French Revolution. Diversity discussions frequently hinge on religion, and French culture is quite open about giving voice to dissenting opinions. One finds such discussions frequently in the media, with a frankness that might seem surprising to the British and Americans, whose cultures tend to consider these topics taboo. In the US and UK, discussions about religion are often avoided, and controversies are avoided by simply not addressing these topics in the media.
By contrast, the French not only discuss religion in the media, but they also make jokes about it. The movie comedy Qu’est-ce qu’on a fait au Bon Dieu? was a box-office hit in France (11) telling the story of a conservative catholic couple whose four young adult daughters each choose a husband from a different ethnic and religious background: a Jew, a Muslim, an Asian, and a black African. Through comedy, all controversial aspects of religion, race, and ethnicity are raised in a way that would simply be unacceptable and “politically incorrect” in the US and UK. In France, the film was such a hit that it gained a sequel, in which the producers pushed the envelope a bit further: a black couple, friends of the family, discover that their daughter is gay and will marry another woman (12). Sexual preferences are introduced into the mix and are addressed equally with a kind of humor that would be regarded as unacceptable in Britain and America. A third film has even been made, in which the parents of the sons-in-law are all brought together for a big family reunion, with plenty of situations to treat ethnic-religious differences with humor (13).
Gert-Jan Hofstede (14) has warned us of the dangers of taking humor across cultures; it usually does not translate well. The French can laugh about these Diversity topics and use humor to discuss them; most Americans and British nationals would find the same jokes tasteless and inappropriate. French producers went on to make a comedy about discrimination against the Jews (15) and another about a unique trio of pop singers: a Catholic priest, a Muslim Imam, and a Jewish Rabbi (16). It appears that nothing is really that sacred in French culture.
This stresses our contention that diversity is indeed handled differently in different cultures, like most sociopolitical aspects of life. It is a mistake to regard it as being treated in the same way. Diversity (and Equity, Inclusion and Belonging) must be considered against the background of each culture and understood according to each community’s underlying values.
(1) Wursten Huib (2019) The 7Mental Images of National Culture. Leading and Managing in a globalized World. AMAZON Books ISBN: 9781687633347
In this book Culture clusters are proposed with different “rules of the game”. See below:
(2) Hofstede, Geert – Culture’s Consequences – Sage Publications, 2003
(3) Lanzer, Fernando – Corporate Culture and Climate: Understanding, Maintaining and Changing – KDP Publishing, 2018
(4) Hofstede, Geert – op. cit.
(5) Wursten – op. cit.
(6) Gibson, Robert – Bridge the Culture Gaps – Nicholas Brealy Publishing, 2021
(7) Bond, Michael Harris – The Social Psychology of the Chinese People – Oxford University Press, 1986
(8) Maslow, Abraham – Motivation and Personality – Harper & Bros, 1954
(9) UNICEF Report – https://www.unicef.org/brazil/situacao-das-criancas-e-dos-adolescentes-no-brasil
(10) Wursten (op. cit.)
(11) Qu’est-ce qu’on a fait au Bon Dieu? – 2014 film https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xmwfpf9lBwk
(12) Qu’est-ce qu’on a encore fait au Bon Dieu? 2019 film https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OvpgXwlTwdo
(13) Qu’est-ce qu’on a tous fait au Bon Dieu? 2021 film https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VWQyh6WJE7E
(14) Hofstede, Gert-Jan – Humour across cultures: an appetizer – epaper on www.yumpu.com, 2014
(15) Ils sont partout – 2016 film https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gXtvFqPQwR0&lc=UgjtxMJTOZjIAngCoAEC
(16) Coexister – 2017 film https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qfj2lM0OrQI