Define Diversity

Often diversity is identified as cultural and ethnic variation among and between people.  Recognizing this kind of diversity is crucial in research, policy and planning because culture and ethnicity affect our values, beliefs and behaviours, including how we live as women, men, both or neither.  At the same time, acknowledging and valuing cultural and ethnic diversity is vital to the fight against prejudice and discrimination.  For example, Canada’s multicultural policies and laws use this definition of diversity with the goal of ensuring that everyone is treated with fairness and respect. [1]

While cultural and ethnic variations are important, if we focus only on this kind of diversity, we are liable to overlook many other visible differences – such as variations in sex and gender, age, and some disabilities – that also affect well-being.  For instance, if we compare poverty rates among Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people in Canada we will quickly learn that Aboriginal people are more likely to be poor.  But if we haven’t looked at rates for males and females, we will have missed the fact that Aboriginal women are amongst the poorest people in the country.

At the same time, if we consider only visible differences when we think of diversity, we are likely to ignore important variations that are not always obvious, such as sexual orientation, education, and religious beliefs.  For example, as concerns about the environment are growing, more companies and agencies are announcing their commitment to become “paperless”.  This strategy, like these modules, relies on the assumption that everyone – or at least those you hope to reach – has a computer and high-speed internet access, and knows how to use the technology.  Yet many Canadians do not or cannot use a computer.  A survey of internet use conducted by Statistics Canada in 2005 revealed that computer usage was closely tied to income, education, family structure, and place of residence.  Those with high incomes, who had some education following high school, who had young children or teenagers in the household and lived in cities were more likely than other groups to have and use a computer. [2]

Many definitions of diversity imply that there is a “standard” or “norm” that we can use to identify differences.  For instance, anatomy and medical textbooks have traditionally used illustrations of male bodies to explain every system in the human body, with the exception of the female reproductive system.  In this case, the male body is treated as the norm while the female body is treated as different from the norm.  Defining diversity in this way – as deviation from a norm – is harmful: at best, it results in neglect; at worst, it leads to discrimination. [3]

At its most basic and best, the term “diversity” refers to any and all differences between and among people.

Sources: [1] Dewing, M. & Leman, M. (2006). Canadian Multiculturalism. http://www.parl.gc.ca/Content/LOP/researchpublications/936-e.htm; [2] Source: Statistics Canada, (2006). Canadian internet use survey.  The Daily. http://www.statcan.gc.ca/daily-quotidien/060815/dq060815b-eng.htm; [3] Lawrence, S.C. & Bendixen, K. (1992). His and hers: Male and female anatomy in anatomy texts for U.S. medical students, 1890-1989. Social Science & Medicine 35, 7: 925–34.

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