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How should we think about difference, and does it matter?

July 22, 2019

 

 

Today organisations are not only concerned to embrace diversity and inclusion but increasingly see doing so as fundamental to their business success. But it’s not possible to talk about diversity and inclusion without talking about difference. And this brings up an important question – how should we think about difference? Should we think about difference as relational? As attributional? Or should we think about difference as the manifestation of something that comes from deep within – an innate essence that expresses our truest selves? While these might seem like esoteric questions, taking a moment to ask them might just make the difference between success or otherwise of your diversity initiatives. 

 

Talking about difference as relational puts the focus squarely on the position of one thing or group in relation to another thing or group. When we talk about the gender pay gap, for example, we are talking about wages earnt by one group (women) in relation to the wages earnt by another group (men). The interest here is whether the relation between these two groups is fair and equitable. In this example, we are not making assumptions about women as different to men, but rather treating difference as residing in the relationship between these two categories. It’s the relation between the categories that is of interest. 

 

The idea of difference as an attribution, draws attention to the fact that there is a complex politics that determines some differences as being socially significant and others as socially insignificant. What this means at its most simple is that, some differences matter to life chances and others do not. For example, one’s gender or class tend to have a determining impact on one’s life chances in a way that one’s hair colour does not. While treating difference as attributional doesn’t imply that any individual person has control over which differences matter, it does open up scope to acknowledge that sometimes we claim difference – and other times ‘difference’ is attributed to us. This insight highlights that there is a constructed, or, political, element to difference and that some ‘differences’ are rendered politically visible and determining.  

 

These two ways of understanding difference have something in common – they draw attention to the political, or socially constructed, way that some ‘differences’ come to matter. As Carol Bacchi argues in a seminal paper on sameness/difference debates, focusing on difference as relational and/or as an attribution focuses on the way ‘difference’, over time and in particular contexts, is constructed in particular ways as a departure from an unstated norm. These approaches to difference shift attention from focusing on that group deemed ‘different’ to focusing on the unexplored norm and the social relationships that create and sustain this dynamic.  

 

Essentialism, a term often used in a pejorative way, refers to a common tendency in discussion of difference that overlooks this social, political element of the construction of difference and takes for granted that difference is the surface level realisation of a deep ‘essence’. A contemporary example of this is the argument that recruiting diverse employees is helpful in connecting with diverse markets. If you are only recruiting women to your organisation because you want to better understand the preferences of women consumers, you might be essentalising gender. Does this matter? 

 

It is true that, as a group, women may have some shared social experiences that allows insight that people who do not share this gender identity do not have access to. But it’s important to recognise, as Elizabeth Spellman sets out in her seminal book on essentialist understandings of gender, that women are not a single unified group – and that gender identity intersects with other identity ‘differences’. As a group, women are as defined by their differences from each other as by their commonalties. And this is an insight that gets lost when adopting an essentialist understanding of difference. 

 

It is equally important to recognise that individuals will have different levels of attachment to aspects of their social identity – for some people gender might be the most important aspect of their identity, for others it might be race, or class, or sexuality, the intersections of these markers, or a marker that isn’t politically significant at all, like being a keen bike rider or having travelled extensively. Constantly having one aspect of your identity highlighted in the workplace may be experienced as reinforcing differences that are unimportant to individuals rather than as being positive and inclusive. In these instances ‘diversity’ measures that highlight or reinforce perceptions of ‘difference’ might be resisted or resented by those that they are presumed to benefit.  

 

In short then, approaches to diversity and inclusion need to reflect on difference – not just as if it is a thing that some people are, or have, but as a constructed way of categorising people, that may or may not correspond with how people want to be categorised in the workplace. Otherwise, diversity initiatives could be perceived as tokenistic and unwelcome.  

 

Angie Bletsas is a senior consultant at Rapid Context. She specialises in in critical analysis, academic and applied research project design and management. Specialist expertise in social policy.

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