CivicCon: Diversity expert Mardia Shands says equality isn’t always enough

On first impression, it only takes people about seven seconds to assess what they think of another person, according to an expert on diversity and inclusion.

As a species, humans are hard-wired to make snap judgments that help them decide when they are safe, when they are in danger and when they should be on guard. Those instincts — that bias — may serve us well when we run into a stranger in a dark alley at night, but it can be a problem when we carry those biases with us into schools, board rooms and neighborhoods.

Mardia Shands, chief diversity officer for the Tri-Health hospital group, says that to build workplaces and communities where everyone is welcome and everyone has a chance to thrive, we have to learn to look beyond the surface.  

“We automatically go to those things that we see … but most of what makes us who we are is not visible to others,” Shands said.

Shands is the chief diversity officer for the Tri-Health hospital group in Cincinnati, and in a CivicCon presentation Monday night she discussed ways people can start to break through their biases and bring more diversity and equity to their work and life circles.

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Early on in her talk, Shands noted that equity is different than equality. She said equality is treating everyone the same. Equity is ensuring different people have the specific things they need to achieve the same results as everyone else.

So for instance, equality is saying everyone will get the same length ladder to pick an apple off the tree, regardless of their height. Equity is ensuring every person has the right length ladder so they can reach their apple.

“Everybody wants a bite at the apple,” Shands said. “Of course we do. We all want lives with dignity. We all want respect, so we can raise our families and enjoy opportunity and be prosperous. After all, this is America folks … even our founding fathers believed that we should have equality. There’s just one thing: sometimes, equality just doesn’t work. Equality gives everybody the same thing, but if you’re the little guy the same thing doesn’t work for you.”

Shands said the concept is important because it ties into things like hiring at businesses, treatment of workers or just everyday interactions among citizens.

“In an organization or in a community, if we give everyone the same things whether they need it or not, that’s not an effective way to ensure everyone is making the most of their lives and their talents,” Shands said.

Shands said that the value of diversity is that its brings different life experiences, perspective, ideas and thought processes, which in turn allows organizations to be adaptable, resilient and welcoming and places where people want to be and want to stay.

Discussing how people can create more diversity in the businesses and organizations, Shands said it has to be something that is done intentionally. She said when all other things are equal, it comes down to intentionally choosing the person who is different than you rather than the same as you.

Shands said in hiring, for example, many managers and business owners say they have trouble finding minority candidates who are qualified. Shands suggested that rather than going through traditional pipelines, they may try recruiting at colleges and professional organizations whose members are predominantly people of color.

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She also suggested that people challenge their notions of why people think a minority candidate may not be a good fit for a position. Shands said she often finds in her position, that minority candidates aren’t passed over because they are less qualified, they are passed over because hiring managers often assume someone from the traditional mold would be a “better fit.”


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