Diversity refers to the many ways people may differ from one another. When most people think about diversity, they think about demographic diversity, meaning different races, genders, ages, etc. Many of these demographic characteristics are protected by anti-discrimination laws, but few people know there are also two other main types of diversity and these actually go a lot deeper into who we are than the surface-level diversity of our demographics: experiential diversity and cognitive diversity. These three types of diversity combined are what shape our individual identities.
What is Experiential Diversity?
Experiential diversity is defined by a person's life choices and interests, such as personal preferences, hobbies, abilities, etc. These life experiences help shape a person's emotional universe, making up their personality and, in turn, defining who they build friendships, relationships and other social connections with. When you think of who you are at the core and what defines you as a person, chances are you think more about your experiential diversity than your demographic or cognitive traits.
Understanding Cognitive Diversity
Cognitive diversity is how we think about things and approach problems. While this can be a little hard to define, think about what would happen if you asked a dozen people to build a 4-foot-tall tower that could be made out of any material. Some people would immediately start building, others would brainstorm a little and then start building and other people would start out by writing down all building materials and tools, then draw plans and build based on these plans. Additionally, the towers would all look wildly different and be made of a number of materials. This is how cognitive diversity works.
Your personal cognitive traits are defined by both your background and your life experience, meaning that people with similar backgrounds and life experiences often have similar ideas and problem-solving skills. When you have people with a lot of cognitive diversity, you'll benefit from having people who demonstrate a number of different techniques when it comes to brainstorming new ideas and solving problems. This is one of the big reasons that it can be beneficial to hire people with a wide array of demographic diversity since it's a lot harder to categorize people by their demographic traits than their cognitive traits.
Demographic Diversity Basics
If you ask someone to talk about diversity in the workplace, their examples will probably be limited to demographic characteristics because these are the ones most frequently discussed when it comes to diversity initiatives. Demographic diversity characteristics are usually things people have no control over, with the exception of their religion. Most demographic diversity traits are also things a person is born with.
When people talk about discrimination, it's almost always related to demographic diversity traits. While everyone has the right to not like someone based on that person's personality, life choices and hobbies, disliking someone based on skin color or gender is unfair and doesn't reflect who the person actually is deep down.
Workplace Gender Diversity
While women have always been a part of the workforce, they were often subjected to sexism and passed over for raises and promotions, particularly to managerial positions. They were also regularly victimized by sexual harassment, ranging from inappropriate jokes all the way to sexual assault. The 1963 Equal Pay Act and Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act both aim to protect women from discrimination and harassment.
Unfortunately, pay discrepancies continue, with women earning 81 percent of what men in similar positions earn. This is known as the pay gap, and it exists even after taking into account men and women's attitudes about workplace benefits, employment choices and gaps in women's resumes related to having children.
Women are also still less likely to be promoted than men, with fewer women serving as upper management in companies and only 25 of the 2018 Fortune 500 companies employing a female CEO. Perhaps partially because of this underrepresentation in upper management, sexual harassment continues to be a regular problem in the workforce. Studies show that at least 25 percent of women are victims of harassment in the workplace and many studies reveal much higher numbers, sometimes as high as 85 percent. Even major companies such as Google have faced lawsuits related to the pay gap and sexual harassment in recent years.
Race, Ethnicity and National Origin
Race is also a protected category under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, as well as skin color (since a person's appearance can often be just as important in matters of racism as a person's actual genetic makeup) and national origin (which can similarly subject someone to racism and discrimination regardless of their appearance). While some people believe racism is pretty much a problem of the past, discrimination based on race is still a serious problem in the workplace. In fact, African American workers experience four times as much discrimination and Hispanics suffer from three times as much discrimination compared to Caucasian employees.
Similar to women, persons of other races are less likely to get promoted and also tend to earn less than their white counterparts. In fact, 68 percent of workers believe their company doesn't do a good enough job when it comes to hiring or promoting minorities. When it comes to earning disparities, for every dollar a white male makes, African American males made 79 cents and Hispanics earned 64 cents. Even those who are promoted and given high-paying jobs still experience unequal treatment at work, with 60 percent of minority managers earning more than $100,000 saying they were discriminated against in their workplace assignments.
Workplace Religious Diversity
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 also covers religious diversity, protecting employees from workplace discrimination based on their beliefs and requiring employers to make reasonable accommodations for employees to practice their religions. Changes to schedules are often a cause of religious discrimination as employers don't want to have to accommodate a worker who may need to take off holidays that aren't listed as government holidays. Similarly, many employers that have dress codes or uniforms don't want to allow employees to wear religious clothing, such as head coverings, that may vary from their desired look for employees.
Unfortunately, while religious discrimination has always been a problem at work, Muslim employees have faced an increased amount of problems since September 11. Even aside from hostilities and prejudices related to the tragedy, many employers have a problem with allowing Muslim workers to pray up to five times a day for 5 to 10 minutes at a time.
As long as a company makes reasonable accommodations for employees, they're legally protected. Examples of reasonable accommodations can include allowing workers a set number of floating holidays to cover religious holidays or asking that religious head coverings be a particular color to match the company uniform.
Age Diversity in the Workplace
While the Civil Rights Act of 1964 didn't offer any protections for older employees, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 added such protections for all employees over 40. Prior to that, many companies would force older employees into retirement with a mistaken belief that they were more likely to be injured or that they had reduced productivity compared to younger workers. But research shows that increased age is actually correlated with a number of positives, such as higher compliance with safety rules, fewer workplace injuries, lower rates of missed work, reduced likelihood of quitting and more.
As the workforce continues to age, a larger portion of employees are now senior citizens. In fact, more than 20 percent of those working in the United States are over 55. Unfortunately, studies show that many employers continue to view younger employees as more qualified and having higher potential, whereas they see older employees as performing on a lower level and less able to handle stress. This is despite the fact that studies have proven these stereotypes to be untrue. Companies also sometimes force out older employees who have accrued years of promotions, raises and benefits to make room for younger employees who may lack experience but will start out on the bottom of the pay scale.
Hiring employees from a wide array of ages has been proven to improve team performance with people from different generations having a wide array of ideas and problem-solving abilities.
Americans With Disabilities
The most recent federal law protecting a group of employees from discrimination is the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). This law protects persons with not only physical disabilities but also mental disabilities, including substance abuse problems. Like the accommodations for religious beliefs, employers are only legally required to make reasonable accommodations to help disabled persons be able to perform their duties. This means a stadium filled with stairs might reasonably refuse to hire a person in a wheelchair as a janitor or usher, but an office with three stairs inside could be reasonably expected to add a ramp over those three stairs to allow a person in a wheelchair full access to the office.
While there are many disabilities out there, the most common ADA workplace complaints are related to cancer, depression, diabetes, hearing impairment, manic-depressive disorder and orthopedic impairments. Employees with long-term illnesses are particularly victimized by discrimination and often find themselves in dead-end jobs that they're far overqualified for simply because they're the only positions these employees can keep while managing their illness.
In order to reduce discrimination against employees with disabilities, companies need to be willing to make reasonable accommodations for these workers, such as reassigning nonessential job functions and modifying employee schedules.
Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity
While not protected at a federal level, many states offer protections against discrimination for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) employees. These employees are often some of the most discriminated against in modern America and up to one-third of LGBT employees don't disclose their orientation or gender identity at work for fear of discrimination and harassment. Fifty-nine percent of LGBT Americans believe that they're less likely to be hired due to their orientation or gender identity.
Unprotected Demographic Characteristics
The most important demographic characteristics in a workplace are those protected under the law, but those aren't the only demographic characteristics by any means. Other demographics include education, socio-economic status, area of residence and first language. Marital status and the number of children a person has are also demographic characteristics that aren't specifically protected, but these are indirectly covered by rules prohibiting gender discrimination, which is why it's illegal to ask questions about these things during the hiring process.
- Saylor Dot Org: Demographic Diversity
- HBR: The 3 Types of Diversity That Shape Our Identities
- Tuts Plus: What Are the Important Dimensions of Workplace Diversity?
- Business Insider: There Are Only 25 Women Ceos In The Fortune 500 — Here's The Full List
- Victory Institute: Issue at a Glance: LGBTQ Employment Discrimination
- Fairy God Boss: 5 Disturbing Sexual Harassment Statistics We Can't Afford to Ignore
- AARP Workforce Training Modules: Managing Generations at Work
- Kessler Foundation: The Employment of Americans with Disabilities
- U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission: Best Practices of Private Sector Employers
- DiversityInc Magazine: How to Create an LGBT-Friendly Workplace
- Prism International: Strategically Leveraging Diversity
- Recruiters Lounge: Diversity, Discrimination and Demographics (podcast)