The most forgotten groups in the quest for diversity

On a white background, a large multi-story building is depicted. Outside and to the right of its door, a blind person with a white cane and another individual are joining hands in a handshake of agreement. The photograph bears the logos of REBORRN and Black Light.

The most forgotten groups in the quest for diversity

The excuses behind neglecting inclusivity for the disabled, the mistakes that lead to a lack of diversity in educational background, and the double-edged sword of ageism in the workforce.


JUN 27, 2024

A rising tide will lift all boats, often say the optimists among us.

You will find many diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging experts nodding in agreement, arguing that once a strategic framework is put in place for gender or for race, it will be much easier for other initiatives to spring and flourish, catering to different demographics and benefiting the entire spectrum of diversity in the workforce.

In reality, however, the groups that DEIB policies are designed to empower are themselves quite diverse. And unfortunately, progress is often not as inclusive or linear as the optimists like to believe.

For many groups, a lot of initiatives under the DEIB label amount to nothing more than lip service, serving branding purposes rather than driving substantive change. For others, there is sheer exclusion from any meaningful discourse on inclusion or belonging, reflecting a troubling superficiality or one-dimensionality in many corporate diversity programs.

And for most of the forgotten groups in the quest for diversity, the challenges they face shed light at the most common mistakes companies make in shaping, designing and implementing DEIB practices.

Nowhere else, for example, are DEIB policies as blatantly restricted to a marketing facade of philanthropy as when it comes to disability inclusion in the workforce. Nowhere else is the narrow focus on ticking diversity checklists as counterproductive as when examining diversity from the lens of educational background. And in few cases is discourse around belonging as thorny as when it comes to tackling ageism in the workforce.

So join us as we explore these three different cases-studies, while revealing some of the most frequent gaps and systemic failures behind DEIB policies along the way.

Disability: where lip service unfortunately dominates

“Disability might as well be the easiest medium through which companies try to market themselves”, says Chrysella Lagaria, CEO and co-founder of Black Light, a social enterprise that strives to make a positive difference for blind people and society. She refers to the myriad sporadic CSR activities often pursued by companies to showcase their sensitivities towards the disabled, highlighting that “because most people do not know anything about disability, and have little willingness to learn, that creates the space for a “good mother-like company” to step in and to cater to needs that -more often than not- may not even correspond to our reality”.

But there is little doubt in Chrysella’s mind: beyond performative and often misdirected policies pursued for branding, few organisations are willing to walk their well-publicised talk on disability.

“When it comes to talks about hiring disabled workers, and what companies need to do to change their workplaces and include them, the absolute majority simply stays silent and backs off”, notes the CEO of Black Light, who was born congenitally blind.

To take a step back, there is an important reframing to our current understanding of disability, one that has moved away from the medical model and closer towards the social one. Rather than an attribute of an individual who may suffer an impairment, the model argues, disability is seen as a socially created problem: a number of hurdles and conditions that are placed by human environments, and that render their full integration into society and the workforce more challenging.

Chrysella breaks it down with more clarity. “A blind person simply needs a specific software to work from their computer. A person with a mobility impairment needs ramps and an accessible bathroom. A worker with autism may need a quiet space so they don’t need to mask all day, a private room where they can hide and actually produce crazy amounts of work”, she explains. “It is the fact that most companies do not provide most of these things that, at the end of the day, reinforces their disability”.

You’re probably correct in guessing that the most common barrier that companies cite, when explaining their failures in disability inclusion, is cost. You’re also probably in for a surprise to find out that it actually costs much less money than most business leaders think to be inclusive towards disabled workers.

“Even when it comes to mobility disability, which largely has to do with what we call the built environment, there are currently numerous very cheap solutions such as affordable folding ramps”, Chrysella notes. “Meanwhile, most medium and small-sized enterprises can enter various government funding programs, and will therefore end up putting very little money out of their own pocket to make their workplace inclusive”, she adds. The data emboldens her point: a well-cited study by the Job Accommodation Network (JAN) found that 56% of accommodations “cost absolutely nothing to implement”, while the rest of the accommodations made have a typical average cost of only $500.

There are, of course, some occasions where interventions in the built environment might be more complex – a common example is offices without wheelchair accessible elevators. But even in these cases, DEIB experts argue, there are flexible or temporary alternatives such as giving the option of remote work, something that can trickle into other areas and become a company offering for everyone who may be interested.

So if cost is an excuse, why is it that companies turn a blind eye towards hiring and including disabled workers? According to the CEO of Black Light, the truth doesn’t hide in the money, but in prejudice and ignorance about disability. “Most business leaders actually feel sorry for the disabled, they assume they will be slower and don’t know if they will have the patience for them, they think they will see them every day and think “oh what happened to this poor fella!”. So they prefer not seeing them, not processing all of that, and putting the cost forward as an excuse”.

As already outlined in Part II of our Depolarizing Diversity series, the best way to shatter our biases is through exposure to an alternate reality. It is something that Chrysella agrees with, arguing that “everything is wrong, not because it is bad to have prejudices, but because there are answers to all of them. The problem is that no one is asking us the questions directly to get the answers, because we are not present in the workforce. There is no magic wand to changing mindsets: you have to change what you see everyday in the office to truly change”.

It is a process that starts with hiring biases, of course, where the biggest problem according to the CEO of Black Light is the “vicious circle of the bad resume”.

“When you look at most resumes from disabled individuals, you’re likely to see many seminars, diplomas and degrees -sometimes as many as five degrees- but little to no work experience. So HR must be prepared when facing a resume from someone with a disability. It must understand that this says little about their willingness to work and more about the impossibility of getting hired as a disabled person”, she says.

There is another, more elusive barrier to hiring for disabled individuals according to Chrysella. “I first heard it from a blind musician who said it best: disabled people are not even given the right to fail”, she says. “We are not given the right to make mistakes. When HR managers consult us about hiring more disabled individuals, they always emphasise that they want to be absolutely certain that it will go well – either because they convinced management to pursue this or because they seek a promotion. For a while, believe it or not,  there was even the wrong rumour that it was illegal to fire a disabled person!”

“But when you look at it: people come and go all the time, thousands may end up leaving a job, that’s a given. So of course you want to make sure hiring a disabled person will succeed, but what matters more is that you opened a door, and someone who wasn’t there managed to enter though it” Chrysella concludes. “And tomorrow, perhaps someone even better will dare to apply, and potentially come to your firm and offer their talent”.

There are multiple added benefits that reveal themselves when a company successfully hires and retains talent with disability: from leveraging an underrepresented talent pool, to creating more accessible products and services by design, to boosting office morale. But one thing is certain: when disability is just another item of the marketing department’s checklist, expect none of them to be reaped.

The Ivy League trap: neglecting diversity in educational backgrounds

Nadine, a product manager based in Silicon Valley, accepted an offer from a big-Tech company four years ago, in part because the organisation “really kept highlighting their focus on diversity and inclusion initiatives in the workplace”. A few weeks into her new job, and despite the company’s undoubtedly strong performance on gender equity or LGBTQ+ inclusion indicators, she discovered that under the surface things were deceptively homogenous.

“I was surprised to find out that almost 90% of my co-workers had essentially attended the same eight or nine elite American universities”, she explains to REBORRN. “What is more, as time passed, it became clear that most of them came from particularly affluent backgrounds. Coming from a low-income family myself, and having to balance a community college degree with numerous years of hard work experience, I definitely started feeling a lack of belonging in the workplace for people like me”.

Nadine’s experience is a phenomenon most CHRO’s know, but few are willing to admit: when it comes to hiring biases, few are as strong as the shiny Ivy League degrees and their global equivalents, which often leave many talented candidates with no chance of competing.

An HR official from Europe confessed to us off the record that, for years, when her company was recruiting for entry level positions, it was common practice to “simply discard all CVs not containing degrees from a certain list of universities – literally without a glance”.

It is a practice diametrically opposed to all reasoning behind diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging initiatives, both in their ethical as well as their business cases. And according to Dimitra Dimitropoulou -an experienced consultant specialising in Digital Marketing and Human Resources with over a decade of work on DEIB initiatives-, it is a problem that, once again, stems from the overemphasis of recruitment on the candidate’s resume, “without realising that it’s only part of someone’s story”.

“Say you have two candidates, one that has gone to Harvard and another that studied at Missouri State”, she says. “Due to recruitment bias, a hiring professional may just see this as a case of Ivy League VS, non-Ivy League, granting blind favouritism to the former in a way that is not fair.

“But perhaps the Harvard graduate didn’t do so well, perhaps they breezed through college and didn’t learn a lot relevant to the position. Perhaps the other candidate didn’t have the socioeconomic privilege to attend an elite school, or maybe they had to work while attending university, to actually learn all the skills they need for this role before they even graduate. For all these reasons and more, it is vital to be mindful about incorporating actual talent assessments to the recruitment process” she explains.

Talent assessment tools may come in many shapes and sizes: from work samples to job simulations, and from cognitive ability testing to AI-powered video interviews, exercises or games. “They are essentially methods to really understand the candidate’s skills and behaviours”, says Dimitra, “to understand what they can add to your team, beyond just looking at where they studied and what companies they’ve worked for. It’s about really digging deeper than that, and understanding the skills of the candidates”.

By giving individuals with different educational backgrounds the same assessment, hiring managers will often find that their biases will be challenged. There is no rule of thumb, of course, but often candidates with what seems like a less prestigious educational background may actually perform better than those with better degrees or more opportunities in their CVs.

“If anything, I would argue that many individuals who didn’t have the same opportunities in life have had to work even harder to gain the skills that they have”, Dimitra explains. “Often they are employees that continue to learn, who are thirsty to prove their worth and who are often more motivated compared to someone who has had easier access. They usually tend to be more resilient and more adaptive”.

It’s not just the institution where somebody studied that can create a misguided bias. Frequently it is also the field of study itself – or even the existence of a degree at all. While undeniably university can be an incredibly enriching experience, hiring managers should seriously consider whether the skills needed for a position can actually be learned on the job or acquired outside of the classroom. It is something that we constantly try to apply in REBORRN, creating teams from diverse educational backgrounds whose strength lies in the variety of skills and experiences they bring to the table – how often, for example, do you meet an Organisational Design Consultant with a degree in Mining Engineering and Metallurgy?

Therein lies another key reason why companies often miss out on a more diverse pool of talent: candidates with more unconventional degrees, or with no educational background, often do not even make it past the initial screening process. They may not even be given the opportunity to showcase their skillsets through a talent assessment tool, even in cases where those tools are used by HR departments, hence they are weeded off while at the same time companies are under the illusion that they have applied inclusive hiring mechanisms.

And apart from incorporating talent assessments and challenging hiring and recruitment biases, there is another key component to tackling diversity in educational background and the socioeconomic variables that often follow it: company culture.

Nadine, who has by now left the job at the Tech firm and is much happier at a new organisation, seems to fully agree with this assessment. “I ended up choosing a different position after two years, mostly because my Manager was perpetuating an exclusionary work culture in almost everything: from the references he used to the jokes he would make to the places he chose for our occasional after-work team bonding. It was all elite university talk – and it was not for me”.

Age discrimination: a two-way stream

Depending on your industry or where you sit in the scale of life, it is easy to hear the word ageism and exclusively think of either the older or the younger workforce. In reality, however, discrimination and exclusion based on age is something that hits both ends of the age spectrum – and it is much more frequent than you probably think.

You have most likely been exposed to the narrative that older employees are stubborn, take more sick days, are slow and technologically illiterate. You’ve also probably heard the tale of GenZers being entitled, lazy, unreliable and unmotivated. Both are narratives that affect everything from hiring and promotion biases to marginalisation and lack of participation in the workplace, essentially denying many workers the chance to be properly evaluated and stripped from any stereotypes that come with their age.

Data reveals this is true on a large scale for both age demographics. An illuminating recent survey by Intelligent found that 4 in 10 employers actively avoid hiring recent college graduates for positions they’re eligible for in favour of older candidates – and at least half of those are actually willing to hire an older employee who is overqualified for the position in order to avoid working with someone younger. In fairness, the survey also revealed some other perplexing things, including the fact that 1 in 5 employers have had a recent college graduate bring a parent to a job interview.

The picture appears a chart in which the findings of the survey have being presented. Acoding to them, during interviews, employers say recent college graduates have: stuggled with eye contact - 53% , asked for unreasonable compensation - 50%, dressed inappropriately - 47%, used inappropriate language - 27%, refused to turn on the camera during a virtual interview - 21%, and brough a parent to their interview - 19%.

Above are some curious findings from a survey by that asked employers to point out some behaviors that recent college graduates displayed during job interviews.


On the other hand, another research revealed that up to 62% of workers aged 50 and above believe older workers face age discrimination in the office, while over 93% of them asserted that ageism in the workplace is in fact a regular, daily occurrence. Additionally, older employees are often completely forgotten when it comes to training and reskilling programs: only 24% of adults aged 55-65 participate in job-related training, according to PIAAC data across OECD countries

What is more, attempts to rectify age discrimination in the workplace sometimes run the risk of going sour by essentially alienating the other side of the age spectrum.

Look no further than the example of Lilly USA, LLC, a pharmaceutical corporation based in Indiana, which recently violated federal law by intentionally failing to hire older workers based on their age, according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Initially, Lily’s workforce was composed of disproportionately older workers, so the company intentionally started hiring more millennials and under-hiring more senior candidates to strike a better age balance in the office. But this strategy is what triggered the response of the EEOC, who found that the company violated the Age Discrimination in Employment Act – a 1960s legislation which exclusively protects workers aged 40 and above.

So is any attempt to tackle age discrimination in the workforce doomed to please one side and hurt the other? Not necessarily, argue many DEIB experts: as long as the policies are not exclusionary by design, both Zoomers and Boomers will find that there is more in common with the ageism they face in the workplace.

Things such as more inclusive hiring practices, which value potential alongside experience, training sessions which educate employees and managers on both types of microaggressions and ageist behaviours, and the much-discussed reverse mentorship programs, which can create a mutually beneficial learning experience between older and younger employees by pairing them up, can go a long way in addressing age discrimination.

But there is, of course, a difficult first step for HR managers and company leaders alike: identifying the internal bias they may hold, which can be vastly different depending on their own age, experiences or industry.

It is a process that requires a data-driven approach to be properly revealed – and as made abundantly clear by now, it is an essential part of DEIB that is, unfortunately, far easier said than done.

The interview has been retrieved by REBORRN.


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