Skip to Content

Intolerance destroys diversity

Léon de Bakker
March 02, 2021

The starting point of diversity is inclusivity. What happens when a dissimilar entity invades “your” bubble?

Reading time: 3 minutes.

Diversity and inclusiveness are hot topics. Especially now during this Covid-19 crisis. Because it’s now when minorities, like women, are disproportionately losing their jobs. And the end of the pandemic and therefore the economic impact is not yet in sight. Will the pandemic further trigger waves of redundancy? If so, do diversity and inclusiveness turn out to be a luxury put on hold? That would be harmful. Organizations that fail on inclusiveness miss out on opportunities to excel. And minorities can end up in degrading situations.

To be or not to be, in the closet?

Take Boston Consulting Group’s June 2020 survey: “A New LGBTQ Workforce Has Arrived—Inclusive Cultures Must Follow“. The survey focused on the daily work interactions of 4.000 people across the United States. Half of the group identifies as LGBTI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex). And the other half as heterosexuals. LGBTI people indicate that:

  • 40% did not come out of the closet at work;
  • Of the 60% who did come out of the closet, 54% remain in the closet for customers;
  • 75% had at least one negative interaction at work in the past year regarding their LGBTI identity. 41% had more than 10 such negative interactions.

Punishment and exclusion ensure that people cannot show the best of themselves or do their best work. In contrast, if you can unapologetically be yourself, then people experience more psychological safety, are more aligned with their qualities, dare to take more risks and are more productive and creative. And that in turn helps organizations to excel. To bring in and retain talent.

The removal of Dr. Gebru

The opposite is also true, as Google experienced in a very public way. In December 2020, Dr. Timnit Gebru announced that Google had fired her after sending an internal email. She criticized in her email Google’s progress in hiring women and minorities. And she mentioned in that email shortcomings in the artificial intelligence used by Google.

Dr. Gebru is quite an authority in her field of work. In 2019, she co-authored a leading Stanford University study on identifying and removing biases from artificial intelligence. Also, she is born in Ethiopia, dark-skinned and a woman. This combination ensured that Google gained considerable credibility when they hired her. Both in terms of diversity – less than 2% of Google’s employees are dark-skinned – and of ethics.

For Google, Dr. Gebru’s resignation didn’t work out well. Firstly, their credibility evaporated. Secondly, 2,695 Googlers and 4,302 academics, human rights activists and supporters signed a petition in protest of her dismissal. Lastly, renowned international media, including The New York Times and The Guardian, reported on these events.

This is a developing story. On February 22 the New York Times reported that another Google ethical A.I. team leader was fired, Margaret Mitchell. She states that she was fired for criticizing the way Google has treated employees working on ways to address bias and toxicity in their A.I. systems.


For me, the example of Dr. Gebru illustrates exactly what is wrong with the diversity hype. Organizations are tumbling over each other to cheer their own diversity-intentions, ambitions and achievements. Unfortunately, those aspirational statements are too often no more than a thin layer of chrome.

That’s too bad, however not surprising. Because there’s great value for an organization to be seen as a positive force for our societies. The benefits are, among others, more goodwill, more loyal stakeholders, higher profits and more growth opportunities. Therefore, there’s an incentive to overstate one’s positive impact. This practice is common enough to end up having its own label: “washing”. For example, greenwashing, brownwashing, pinkwashing and rainbowwashing.

Inclusive down to the smallest fibers of the organization’s DNA

There are also organizations that go further then statements and truly try to make a significant difference. Yet they fail. Often because diversity is slapped on to an organization as a technical module. This one-dimensional approach reduces diversity and inclusivity to an overstretched simplification: let’s hire non-white, non-male and non-heterosexual employees. With matching diversity targets and rewards for managers that meet them. This flawed approach cheerfully welcomes minorities at the front door. Only for them to leave the organization quietly and disappointed through the back door.

Inclusivity, and with it the success rate of diversity, is deeply rooted in an organization. It is an identity and culture issue. Because it touches values, norms and behavior in situations where colleagues are present who look, think or act differently. For example, because of their origin, descent, sexual orientation, gender, financial position, physical abilities, language skills, vernacular, connections or hairdo. What happens when a dissimilar entity invades “your” bubble? Is there space for that? Is that person welcome? And is there support? Does anyone speak up and act when there’s intolerance?

An inclusive and diverse police force?

Achieving inclusivity and diversity is rather challenging, according to the Dutch police force. In the summer of 2019 the National Dutch News Organization, the NOS, quoted an employee of the force: “White, older straight men set the norm”. This is not incidental, the force confirms. Despite several public efforts to open up, for example, to people that identify themselves as LGBTI+. Some examples of those efforts: there’s a network within the force “Pink in Blue”, the police participates yearly with a boat at Pride Amsterdam and a newspaper published on the 5th of December 2020 an interview with a chief constable. The interview mainly focusses on the fact that the chief constable is a drag queen in his spare time. At work, his colleagues call him Action Jackson. On stage, her name is Ruby Rouge.

Your righteousness makes me want to throw up!

The police force is struggling to get it right. Simultaneously, there are success stories. Like at Essent, an energy provider. One of their marketing campaigns featured a picture of a cheerful-looking Hervé Muaka. Mr Muaka, an adviser at Essent, was very pleased with this opportunity to contribute. Up until the moment people started to comment on the campaign. Or more specifically, on his dark skin tone on Twitter. Some shocking examples are: “with this shift to BLM you only score aversion, not new customers“. “Black Essent“. “Use a photograph of a Dutchman. Your righteousness makes me want to throw up!”.

Essent then took to Twitter to unequivocally distance themselves from racism, gave Mr. Muaka space to process the racist comments, asked him if he wanted to decide next steps on the comments, trained webcare how to deal with such comments, and sped up diversity policy.

What to do?

In a report, McKinsey provides valuable tools for lasting change: “Diversity wins: How inclusion matters” of 19 May 2020. Their tips:

  • Increase diversity, particularly in critical and leadership roles;
  • Strengthen leadership and accountability for inclusion and diversity goals;
  • Enable equality of opportunity through fairness and transparency;
  • Promote openness and tackle microaggressions, bias and discrimination;
  • Nurture, promote and explicitly measure the extent to which your employees feel at home in your organization.

Tough cookies

Diversity scores. So that’s what drives hiring policy. Unfortunately, that’s just the wrong thing to do. The starting point isn’t hiring. The starting point is an inclusive organization. Or at least a path to inclusivity and some first results. This provides a diverse workforce with a realistic change to flourish.

If inclusivity and diversity aren’t ingrained in corporate culture, achieving change will be hard. Lasting results require a broad, visible effort that needs to be constantly reinforced over a long period of time. I understand this is not such a motivating ending. But it is important to know what you are getting into and that you start immediately. Intolerance cannot be tolerated.

About the author

Lead Improvement Coach | Netherlands
Léon leads digital transformations with a core focus on future-proofing organizations and putting purpose into action. Aligning teams, business and IT across all layers of the organization and its key stakeholders with a wide lens and an open mindset. He studied business economics, has IT experience since 2001 and has supported organizations with their transformation journeys since 2003. Léon is passionate about all that is tech, new gadgets and visual design. Currently, Léon is working on connecting purpose and IT as key drivers for organizational change and exploring innovative ways to redefine and remeasure growth and success in a world in urgent need of more businesses moving positive impact front and center.


    Leave a Reply

    Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

    Slide to submit