Inclusiveness Versus Diversity

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‘Versus?!’ I hear you cry. It’s true that we usually use these two words interchangeably when we talk about opening up our choirs (or our schools or our boardrooms) to attract people from a wider range of demographics than hitherto. But the two words approach the same project from interestingly distinct angles, and once you start thinking through the differences it can affect how you go about that project.

The immediate context for this is the Barbershop Harmony Society’s new strategic vision, which I both praised and critiqued a few weeks back. The topicality is far wider than this, of course, but it was this set of debates that had me thinking about this in a more focused fashion, and coming to the conclusion that, if you want to get ‘Everyone in Harmony’, inclusiveness is a more useful term to focus on than diversity.

You see, inclusiveness is something that you can directly act upon. You can make choices about your rules for membership, your repertoire, your dress codes, the kinds of jokes it is socially acceptable to make in your organisation, and you can action those decisions.

We’ll stop singing Mammy songs and we won’t let our MCs tell sexist jokes, and we’ll choose a stage costume that people under the age of 50 won’t feel embarrassed to wear. All of those are useful actions that will help a wider proportion of the population feel welcome and comfortable, and thus more likely to join and to bring their friends along as fellow singers and audience members.

Diversity is about the people who aren’t yet in the room, about the choices that other people are making to not be there with you. And as Choice Theory tells us, you can’t control somebody else’s behaviour, you can only change your own. If you want more People of Colour, or LGBT+ people, or people of different faiths to join, you can’t go out and abduct them to bring to rehearsal, you can only change your own behaviours to create an environment in which they will feel welcome.

Diversity, that is, is a performance indicator, not a goal. The degree to which your organisation looks like the whole population from which it draws is a measure of how inclusive your organisation culture and behaviours are. If you are unremittingly white in your membership, the question to address isn’t, ‘How do we recruit more PoC?’, it’s, ‘What are we doing that is currently putting off PoC?’ Because until you address that, any PoC you recruit aren’t going to feel at home with you.

There’s another practical way a focus on inclusivity rather than diversity is helpful. Diversity, by its nature, fragments your attention. You find yourself with a shopping list of different demographics, and it’s a list that grows the more you think about it. And each demographic is different, that’s what diversity means.

So, the enterprise gets increasingly expensive of emotional and practical resources the more you commit to it. You run the risk of running yourself dry, and then, thinking you need a rest from your diversity efforts to recuperate, relax back into business as usual. That’s a great way to undo all the progress you just made.

Inclusiveness as a goal, by contrast, focuses rather than dissipates your energy. You still need to be alert to the specific needs of different groups, of course, because it is in the nature of this kind of project that you are blind to the exclusionary aspects of your organisational culture, and you need to learn to see them. But (and you can thank Jonathan for articulating this insight), if you work on inclusiveness, you are getting your group ready for all those forms of diversity you’ve not yet thought of.

And, whilst different demographics have different triggers for what may make them feel unwelcome, they are also aware of each other’s needs. They will make judgements about how safe they feel in an organisation by how it treats others as well as themselves. A chorus that accepts homophobic banter in rehearsal, or sings date-rape songs, signals to everyone that they don’t really care who they offend or upset. A chorus that demonstrably listens to and takes seriously the feelings of their minority members helps people from other minorities feel safer too.

Inclusiveness can, in this sense, be seen as a type of experiential objective, for planning all kinds of chorus events: rehearsals, performances, recruitment evenings. Your rational objective may be to perform a set of songs with skill and panache; the experiential objective is to make everyone in the audience feel glad to be there with you.

If you become, as a result, diverse in your demographic, that tells you that you are succeeding in creating an environment in which more people feel welcome and at home; if not, it’s a signal to re-examine your organisational culture and habits to find what the obstacles are.

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