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Expert Says Company Culture Helps Determine Prospects for Workplace Diversity

ARLINGTON, Va. – A commitment to diversity and inclusion has to be inextricably woven into the culture of an organization for that organization to realize its greatest potential, said Tiane M. Gordon, senior vice president of diversity and inclusion at AOL, Thursday during a keynote address at George Mason University’s fourth annual Workplace Diversity Conference.

Students, government officials, researchers and academics assembled in Arlington, Va., for a two-day conference hosted by George Mason University’s School of Management to discuss strategies for strengthening communication and collaboration among diversity researchers, practitioners and educators.

The conference is centered on marrying the theoretical with the practical, said conference organizer Dr. David Kravitz, a professor in the school of management at George Mason.

“Researchers and practitioners need to work together,” said Kravitz. “We have a lot to learn from each other. A number of diversity and inclusion researchers don’t really appreciate the difficulty of doing diversity and inclusion work in the field. Practitioners must also become familiar with research. If researchers talk to practitioners about particular questions that they have, we could do research that is directly applicable.”

The theme of this year’s conference is “Changing Organizational Cultures to Increase Diversity, Inclusion and Performance.”

Some organizations continue to struggle with inclusion because the culture or organizational ethos in which that institution functions is not receptive to what diversity and inclusion is, Gordon said.

“Too often organizations fail to fathom the potential impact of culture,” Gordon said. “Researchers point out that real change cannot happen unless its culture is changed first. Culture drives either the acceptance or rejection of diversity and inclusion.”

During her address to more than 80 participants, Gordon said creating a diverse and inclusive workplace culture requires an uncompromised commitment to diversity by senior and middle-level management.

“The CEO’s position on diversity must be clear and unambiguous,” said Gordon. “The senior leader must be responsible for articulating diversity and inclusion as a business requirement. That it is not just a workplace issue; it is a marketplace issue.”

Everyone in the organization has to understand the value of inclusion and diversity and be held accountable for aligning their behavior with best practices, Gordon insisted.

“Diversity and inclusion help organizations attract, attain, motivate and effectively use the 80 percent of the new talent pool that won’t necessarily be White, male, heterosexual or able-bodied,” said Gordon. “It helps organizations improve the quality of their decision making at all levels.”

Conference presenters Dr. Marilyn Byrd, professor of management and marketing at the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor in Belton, Texas, and Dr. Chaunda Scott, professor of human resource development at Oakland University in Rochester, Mich., underscored the need for a paradigm shift among organizations from diversity training to diversity education.

Diversity education focuses on exploring structures of power and privilege, de-constructing attitudes and behaviors that maintain the status quo and transforming organizations and institutions into a more equitable and inclusive environment.

“Diversity training addresses an immediate [diversity] need. Diversity education lays the foundation for diversity training,” Scott said.

Dr. Dawn Bennett-Alexander, conference attendee and professor of employment and legal studies at the University of Georgia, told conference participants that a continued focus on diversity and inclusion practices will yield positive results although victories are sporadic.

“We had our first transgendered faculty member who transitioned between first semester and second semester,” said Bennett-Alexander. “We also had our first, in my department, openly gay hire. Having that happen in that bastion of conservatism without a wrinkle is huge.”

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