What is Diversity and Why is it Important?


It seems like a silly question to ask, “what is diversity?” But the term in a professional sense has a vastly different connotation than the colloquial sense of the word. Diversity in colloquial language means things like let’s have fish tonight because we had chicken last night. Or maybe let’s try that new restaurant, Caribbean is outside our comfort zone! Diversity in the workforce has a different meaning which is meaningful and important.

Professional diversity is a dynamic and invaluable aspect of modern workplaces, encompassing a range of backgrounds, skills, experiences, and perspectives among employees. It goes beyond traditional notions of diversity to include variations in educational backgrounds, career paths, expertise, and problem-solving approaches. Embracing professional diversity enriches teams with a mosaic of insights and ideas, fostering a vibrant environment where innovation flourishes.

By bringing together individuals with diverse professional backgrounds, organizations can tap into a wealth of collective knowledge, enabling them to tackle complex challenges from multiple angles and make well-informed decisions that drive growth and success.

How I Learned the True Meaning of Diversity

Several years ago I took a work retreat with about a dozen of my coworkers. The retreat was a few hours away in the mountains and we were there for 3 days. Although I was skeptical about its usefulness, I found it to be one of the rewarding experiences of my life. Not because of the class we took, or the insights we gained from the material but rather because of the time I got to spend and the stories I got to listen to from people who came from a different life experience than me.

One of the nights we were all sitting on the back porch of the house we were sharing, having a few drinks and telling funny stories. And then a very innocuous comment was made that caught my attention. One of my African-American coworkers was telling a funny story and then concluded the story with, “and you know I walked out of that store with a bag!” And all of my black coworkers were howling laughing while the rest of us were confused. So I asked, “I’m sorry, what’s with the bag why is that so funny?”

She looked at me and said, “oh, black people are taught from a young age always get your stuff put in a bag at the store. Even if it’s just a pack of gum. Get the clerk to put it in a bag.” All of my other African-American coworkers were nodding their heads in agreement.

“Ok, I’ll bite. Why?” I asked.

“So we don’t get accused of stealing when we walk out of the door,” she said calmly.

Incredulous I looked at all of them and asked, “is this true?”

“Oh yes!” they all emphatically replied in unison. And even this group of African-American coworkers were diverse in their own right! One was a very young and friendly guy IT guy who I had never seen not smiling. Another was an old grizzled and snarky retired Navy veteran. And the woman I was talking to was young, brilliant, and a rising leader in the organization. Three vastly different people across a wide age and skill range, and yet they were in unilateral agreement on this point without hesitation.

Years later, I came across a story from Neil DeGrasse Tyson, noted Dr. of Astrophysics and director the Hayden Planetarium. He recounts a tale of once when he was in a department store and was leaving, a thief who had several thousands of dollars of stolen goods walked alongside him, and when the alarm went off security guards rushed to Tyson and stopped to search him while the white thief walked right out scott-free (he learned this information from security footage after the fact). The thief knew Tyson would be stopped and searched, not him.

How Does that Translate to Professional Diversity?

Here is the takeaway I had from the bag story. Diversity is not putting women, minorities, or other marginalized people in society in token management positions and calling it a day. “Way to go, team! We achieved the diversity!” And it’s definitely not putting minority people in every company photo to be splashed on social media. Because frankly that’s just using people to improve your image.

(By the way, I made a conscious choice not to use a typical stock photo of “diversity” for this article. I instead chose this one because it’s far more in the spirit of the message and meaning of this post.)

Diversity is ensuring minorities have an equitable seat at the table and are a part of the discussion about how informed decisions are made. Diversity is not putting a gay man in your company’s photo for Instagram. Diversity is asking him, “how would this course of action the company is considering be perceived by the gay community?” Diversity is asking African-American employees, “do you feel this branding choice would be perceived as insensitive or harmful to minority communities?”

True professional diversity is giving people historically marginalized in society a voice in the direction of the future of the company, not sticking them in front of a camera for a photo op. I am a big believer that most companies, organizations, and quite often individuals put more energy into doing things to appear successful rather than doing the things necessary to actually be successful. Using minorities for photo ops strictly for public optics is putting energy into appearing successful. Diversity is making a commitment to ensure minorities not only have a voice, but are integral in the direction of the company’s future.

Photo by Maegan Martin on Unsplash

Erik Murrah

Author, nerd, chess player, artist, business owner, runner, mediocre philosopher, outdoorsman. Creator of the Arise Tribe.

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