In my 12 years as a minority female engineer, and an advocate for diversity and inclusion at a major automotive company, I have learned that having a seat at the table isn’t always synonymous with having a voice. That’s where the need for inclusion, as well, comes into play.
Think about a very real scenario. Imagine a boardroom with ten seats around the table, all of which are occupied by white men, who not only look the same, but think the same too. Now imagine those ten seats are occupied by people of various backgrounds, religions, sexual orientations, ages, with men and women mixed — but all of them have a wide experience. That’s diversity. But that’s still not enough. Each person needs to have a voice and be heard, to be represented, and to participate as well. That’s inclusion.
Diversity should be seen as an asset, not a bargaining tool, or just another checkbox. I’ve been in a group at work with around 40 engineers, where I was a double-minority.  I was the only woman and the youngest by about 15 years on average. It was not only intimidating, but the culture of the group wasn’t very inclusive. I felt like my voice wasn’t heard. It felt like I wasn’t taken seriously. That not only prevented them from gaining any benefit from my ideas, but it also hindered my own growth. I had to move to an entirely different group in a different department in order to be listened to and get on a path to grow within the company.
A group can only move forward and grow once everyone in the room, sitting at the table or not, is making some form of contribution and is actually being listened to.
In larger corporations, diversity and inclusion is often pushed by people at the working level and gains support from upper, C-suite level management. However, somewhere along the way the implementation through middle management gets muddied. How to proceed becomes subject to interpretation. Unconscious bias plays a big role in that stage of the problem, creating a true culture gap. Often, middle management is so caught up with doing what managers think is best for employees and the company that they lose sight of what people really want and need. It’s sort of like a bad game of telephone. By the time the message reaches the grassroots level, it isn’t a clear one any longer.
More and more companies are creating some form of diversity and inclusion organization to help clear up these issues. I recently co-chaired an event at my company to help spread the word about all of the work being done to help employees know what resources are available and where to find them. It was a company-wide event, and all the diversity groups held individual events to showcase what they have to offer employees. It led up to a main event with a panel discussion by C-suite executives. Events like these help to bridge the gap between upper-level management and employees, while keeping the levels in between still engaged.
Innovation arises from new ideas and new ways of using things that already exist. That requires new ways of thinking, a diversity of perspectives, so people in the organization can see things in a new light — to see something not for what it is, but for what it can become.
The same goes for people. Companies can’t afford to exclude anyone or any idea from this narrative. Everyone needs to be included and be heard; everyone needs to be a part of this discussion and their innovations taken seriously. The only diversity we should be talking about is diversity of thought, because diversity of people should be the norm — not the exception. More industry leaders should be held responsible and accountable for reaching these goals. The true trailblazers will be the ones who are so focused on advancing the technology and innovation that they won’t have time to discriminate.
Inclusion puts meaning behind diversity efforts, ensuring that they are more than a box-checking exercise. Aiming for diversity is a first step. Listening to those diverse voices is the only way a company can truly be responsive to the changing needs of their diverse customers.
Taharah Saad is an engineer based in Detroit.