Part 1: Diversity and inclusion in South Africa: Why introduce the concept of ‘inclusion’ – What is new?

The field of diversity work has evolved significantly over time. Terminology has also changed.  Some talk about Diversity, Diversity Management, Diversity Awareness and now Diversity and Inclusion. What is New? Was Inclusion not implied in previous references to Diversity?  What value does this term bring to the ongoing debate?

From our locality in South Africa, the following blog offers reflections on the relatively recent introduction of the term inclusion to explain and motivate diversity work in companies and organisations.

At first glance, the word inclusion seems quite simple to define. Dictionaries will tell you that inclusion is the “the action or state of including or of being included within a group or structure.” Taking a step further, to include is “to have someone as part of a group or total; to contain someone in a group or as a part of something; or to make someone a part of something” (Oxford Dictionary).

In contrast, to exclude is “to deny someone access to a place, group or privilege; to keep something out; or to remove from consideration.” It is “to prevent someone from doing something or being part of a group; to leave out; or to think something is not worth attention” (Merriam Webster Dictionary).

These definitions highlight the important difference between “diversity” and “inclusion.” Diversity is a noun. It is the description or recognition of the dimensions of difference and similarity that exist in a community or organisation, such as gender, race/ethnicity, age, culture, religion, economic status/class, language, disability, sexual orientation, nationality, job role/position, and education, among many others. These dimensions are outlined in Chapter 2 and section 9 of the South African Constitution which was promulgated in 1996.

Sometimes ‘diversity’ and ‘diversity management’ are used interchangeably, but diversity by itself does not necessarily require management. It is simply a noun, a description of differences and similarities that people use to identify themselves (individually or within a group) or others.

In contrast, inclusion is a verb. It is an action or a practice aimed at intentionally creating an environment that leverages diversity without reducing individuals to categories that need to be managed. The focus on inclusion re-orientates diversity management. Diversity awareness training or diversity management activities that ignore the concept of inclusion can actually create the opposite effect, i.e. instead of resulting in high performing teams, it can cause resentment and inter-group conflict (Molefi, 2013a).

Inclusion encourages managers and leaders to see themselves as active participants in the process of building a more equitable workplace, rather than as the ones tasked to manage other people. In working with a range of different companies, Mandate Molefi has observed that the shift to inclusivity requires a big change in mind-sets, attitudes and behaviours. But it also has much greater benefits than viewing diversity management as simply a way to protect the company from lawsuits or to keep employees from fighting with each other (Molefi, 2013a).

By using the word “inclusion”, one is shifting  the focus from viewing diversity as a problem that needs to be solved, to focusing on  concrete actions that can result in a more creative, empowering and dynamic workplace for the individuals within it (managers, employees, unions etc.) as well as for the stakeholders outside it (shareholders, customers/clients, suppliers, etc.). It is not uncommon for an organisation to approach a consulting firm to come and ‘solve a diversity problem’ which in their view is caused by a particular manager or a few employees. Such requests indicate a limited understanding of diversity and Inclusion as both interpersonal and systemic. No one person can cause a ‘diversity problem’.

Inclusion as an action reminds us that it is not enough to state that the organisation is committed to diversity. Instead, line managers, leaders, HR managers and diversity officers must go further in ensuring that a climate of inclusion is created and stakeholders have a sense of shared ownership of the organisation. This is bound to have a positive impact on the company – engaged staff with greater passion and higher levels of productivity and greater levels of retention of valuable talent.

By Nene Molefi

Nene is the Managing Director of Mandate Molefi, a company that specialises in diversity consulting and training for more than 10 years.