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Inclusion Is NOT a Zero-Sum Game

Ruthie: For our next segment, Dr. Aparajita Jeedigunta of AJ Rao LLC and I are going to talk about inclusion. The topic of this episode is that inclusion isn’t a zero-sum game. Could you elaborate on what you mean by that?

What Does Inclusion Isn’t a Zero-Sum Game Mean?

Dr. AJ: Absolutely. There’s this concern that by including more people, you’re actually taking away power and privilege from those who already have it. Like when we talk about white privilege. There are white people who are not affluent saying, “I grew up poor.” I’m not denying that at all, but you’re still white. There’s still some privilege that comes with that. 

Just like me being Indian American; people assume that my parents are filthy stinking rich, but they’re not. I do have the privilege of having the support of my parents, a stable family structure and a commitment to family. Those are my privileges. 

That’s really where this “inclusion is not a zero-sum game” comes from. When we think of inclusion, we tend to think of these sacrifices and privileges, but it’s not like that. The universe theoretically started from the Big Bang, and it’s still expanding. The power and energy in the universe are still expanding.

That’s sort of how inclusion is. It’s still expanding. By including more people, we don’t destroy that energy. We just convert and amplify that power exponentially by adding more voices. It’s not even linear. When we look at it like a win-loss, zero-sum game, we’re just shooting ourselves in the foot. 


Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging

Ruthie: A lot of us who fall into these buckets of marginalized communities get asked the question, “What more do you want?” We can feel that something is not quite right, but we can’t articulate it. So it’s hard to answer that question. Do you have any insight into that?  

Dr. AJ: Actually, that’s a very easy question to answer. What we want is to belong. We don’t want to just feel like a token, who’s been invited just to show the diversity. Verna Myers said, “Diversity is being invited to the dance; inclusion is being asked to dance.” 

The Differences Between Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

I talk in a slightly different way about diversity, inclusion, equity, and belongingness. Diversity is when you’re allowed into the building, but you’re stuck in the lobby. You’re not able to do the work because there’s 80 of you sharing the same wifi password and bandwidth, and then there are 10 executives who have the rest of the building. 

Inclusion is then being allowed into the boardroom where there’s better wifi, but you’re not given the password. You can’t contribute or make any changes at all. 

Belonging and equity are when you’re invited into the boardroom, you’re given the wifi password, you’re given a megaphone and told your voice matters. 

Ruthie: It’s more subtle. Your analogy definitely ties into that, because people oftentimes think being let into the building is more than enough. 

Dr. AJ: Exactly. And the desegregation of data shows that people are still focused on diversity numbers. They keep saying, “We hired so many African Americans/Asians/LGBTQ+ spectrum members.” But how many of them are in leadership? Please, do tell.

Too Focused on Marking The “Diversity Checkbox”

Ruthie: These systems function more like checkboxes, vs. actually checking for effectiveness. 

Dr. AJ: I think you hit the nail on the head. We’re still checking off the checkboxes. We haven’t moved past that. When decision makers say, “Oh yeah, we’re doing great on inclusion.” I usually ask them, “How many people who don’t look/think like you are on your leadership team?” …Crickets. Or it’s that one black or Asian person, but that’s tokenism. That, or that one woman who usually ends up being a white woman. 

There’s more groups of marginalized people, like women, people of color, immigrants, LGBTQ+ spectrum members, people with disabilities, etc. They are still facing harassment and discrimination every year in their workspaces; 45% of American workers reported facing harassment or discrimination in their workforces in the past 12 months, and 90% of those happen to be people who are members of marginalized groups. 

They say they don’t feel respected, they don’t feel like they can bring their whole selves to work, and they have to cover essential aspects of themselves.

They know they’re going to get discriminated against or harassed. If you’re bringing somebody into your organization and you’re not making sure that space is safe for them to thrive, you’re not truly including. 

Ruthie: I think that’s something that leaders are going to have to determine for themselves. They’re definitely going to have to do some deep digging. 

What Makes a Good Ally?

Ruthie: Speaking of that, we’re getting into ally territory. A lot of people don’t look like us or have the same struggles we do, so we have different types of allies. There’s allies who try, but make mistakes. You’ve got people who we’re able to hold up and say, “Hey, this is what it really means to be an ally!” 

But I think a lot of people are still confused on that. What does it mean to be an ally? We know it’s more than just saying, “I got black friends! I know black people! I invite Dr. AJ over all the time. I’m an ally!” So what does it mean to be a good ally? 

Realizing Your Affinity Bias and Tapping Into Your Empathy

Dr. AJ: That ties into 2 things. First, all human beings have something called an affinity bias. It just means that birds of a feather flock together. We tend to prefer people who look and act like us. Being an ally means looking inward first; looking at how you think, act, and what your preferences are. Then, you consciously interact with people who don’t fit those preferences. 

Secondly, an ally taps into that need to belong. Every single one of us, no matter what our background is, has had moments in our life when we felt like we didn’t belong. Start there.

Now you have a momentary inkling of what the daily lives of those who are systematically marginalized are like. That single moment is somebody’s entire day. Imagine how bad they feel. 

When you realize how awful you felt and what you had to do to get yourself out of that, you have a better understanding of what people who are marginalized have to constantly do to even be functional. That’s exhausting! Where do they find energy to produce work? No wonder people who are marginalized are beyond exhausted.

Their health outcomes are worse. Their career trajectory outcomes and leadership outcomes are worse. They just have worse prognoses across the board. 

People don’t realize that being an ally is literally just tapping into those hidden struggles and being there for that person. Another thing is that you need to ask the person what they need; don’t go in with assumptions.

Approach them with genuine curiosity, be vulnerable, and say, “I don’t know how to help you, but I want to. How can I help you?” 

Resources to Help You Take the First Steps Toward Inclusion

Ruthie: You have a course on this, don’t you? What do you call it? 

Dr. AJ: Yes, I do. It’s called Allies for Inclusion

Ruthie: All right, that’s pretty straightforward! You also have something on your website people can sign up for, right? A starting point for them to work towards a more inclusive team or organization. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

Dr. AJ: It’s really just a free checklist with a few bonus resources. You can use it whether you’re an individual contributor or an organization. It’s to help you see how intentionally inclusive your organization is being and how you can still do your part to make the changes that need to be made. 

I recommend people go through that checklist and then schedule a clarity call with me. It’s a completely no strings attached, free clarity call so that I can help you create well-designed actions that are going to be successful. 

Ruthie: That’s amazing. Those are some great steps for people to get a taste of your work. We’ll be sure to link it in the show notes so you won’t have to go far in order to get your copy of the checklist.