Corporate diversity and inclusion policies reflect both the current state of science and our collective narrative about it. We use science to help organize our understanding of human characteristics and capabilities. We also tell ourselves stories about what that scientific evidence means to help us organize workplaces in particular ways. As both science and the story changes, so too do diversity policies.
Currently, sex, ethnicity, immigrant status, disability and perhaps cognitive type are the focus of most diversity and inclusion discourse. Yet other changes are afoot that may alter our understanding of what diversity means, and which human traits require protection or inclusion in the workplace.
Most of these relate to emerging science and technology, but not all. Some are demographic. Some trends, such as the decline in labor force numbers and the relative proportion of white workers (in the United States) are well known and widedly tracked.
New demographic patterns may also produce new forms of identity, discrimination and policy. For example, declining mobility among rural, poorer workers is creating a distinct urban / rural divide (Wall Street Journal analysis, requires subscription). The effects of climate change on different regions of the United States could further sharpen these existing divides or cut them in different ways, making geographic diversity a more pointed issue for employers.
And, as technological advance marches on, it will also drive novel considerations for employer’ diversity and inclusion policies
(1) Genetic modification
In the last several years, researchers have figured out how to successfully modify human embryos’ genetic material, and it has been reported that the first genetically modified babies have been born.
Although many scientists believe that hyperbolic statements about ‘designer babies’ are unlikely exaggerations, even the most skeptical think there is a serious need to discuss the ethics of interventions that could lead to social inequalities.
At that point, employers will have to give thought to where they draw the between difference, disability, and ‘super-ability.’
Models for thinking about how to deal with genetically-enhanced humans exist today in the deaf community and among autism and Downs syndrome advocates. These communities have long held sophisticated discussions about the the relationships between human disability, ability, skills and worth.
The potential ability to produce ‘enhanced’ children with more powerful abilities or intelligence would directly cut across our understanding of fairness and equal opportunity. Imagine a day when Human Resources executives must extend affirmative action principles to all of us who have not arrived in the world with genetic enhancements produced at the embryonic stage.
What we consider outliers or fringe identities often illuminate the nature of the mainstream.
Today, we think of difference in terms of visually available ethnic and gender cues. But perhaps there are many more cues on offer about what we are and can be. Body hacking is a small but robust movement of people who use prosthetics, implants or other devices to transform their bodies.
The news that a company in Wisconsin has offered employees the opportunity to get ‘chipped’ with an implanted RFID transmitter that lets them use their fingers to open passcodes for copy machines and unlock doors is not new to body hackers, who have been chipping for years. They are likely to continue to be ahead of the rest of us as technologies, such as 3D printing, small scale biological experimentation, tattooing, and implantation become DIY activities.
These will open opportunities for people to make changes they feel enhance their bodies’ looks and behavior. Body hackers raise various diversity and inclusion issues. Their ability to customize their bodies may compel all of us to think about individuality and our collective acceptance of human difference.
Specific forms of augmentation or enhancement could raise particular issues for hiring and inclusion. What is a permissible form of self-improvement and does it supersede what we perceive as natural abilities? Will an employer pay for or subsidize enhancements that would increase someone’s employability the way they would pay for skills training today?
(4) Automation & the shifting workplace context
The workplace is itself changing because of automation. Current estimates of how much unemployment may eliminate entire jobs or classes of skills reach over 50% in some contexts.
New kinds of workplaces will produce new contexts for diversity and inclusion. Consider the freelancer or contract work model, such as Uber’s. The distributed workforce has particular issues related to diversity because they may need to develop trust and congenial working styles using different cues than those working face-to-face. There is already a large body of research on managing cultural differences among distributed teams to draw on as a resource. The extreme transparency of the contemporary workplace means that companies should be aware that the value of diversity and inclusion may be on customer and stakeholder minds, even if it is not a pressing issue in the day-to-day life of a company.
(5) Technology-driven transparency
This is a transparent world. One day the word “leak” will disappear because we will understand that all information that touches a digital channel is always already possibly public. As more of us are also online, this gives citizen stakeholders a powerful role in pressuring organizations to accede to our ideas about what diversity and inclusiveness looks like. This is a complex development. Although public pressure holds the potential to be more democratic, it can be the case that the loudest voices, rather than the most insightful or informed, are best heard. The stakeholder pool, from the point of view of human resources or organizational leadership, extends beyond investors and customers to pretty much everyone, in a transparent environment.
(6) Artificial intelligence and inclusive algorithms
Digital marketing experts predict that artificial intelligence will drive meaningful advances in marketing and customer relationship management automation.
Which means that most of us will be talking to even more machines in our lives as consumers in the near future. Automated systems, of course, customize their responses to us by using our past habits and our group characteristics to decide who we are and what we need. They use the same categories that employers and governments to sort us out — our gender, ethnicity, and age group, for example. They are as a result part of the system of identification and diversity in their predictions about who we are, and have a role to play in generating options for us to be specifically ourselves.
We should all challenge technology designers and programmers to be aware of their important role, and to consider how automation can play a productive role in encouraging us to explore all the variants of human expression and potential.