What is Diversity?

The SAGE Encyclopedia of Intercultural Competence

Dimensions of Diversity

Contributors: Lee Gardenswartz & Anita Rowe Edited by: Janet M. Bennett Book Title: The SAGE Encyclopedia of Intercultural Competence Chapter Title: “Dimensions of Diversity” Pub. Date: 2015 Access Date: July 1, 2019 Publishing Company: SAGE Publications, Inc. City: Thousand Oaks, Print ISBN: 9781452244280 Online ISBN: 9781483346267 DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.4135/9781483346267.n84 Print pages: 234-238

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Diversity, the ways in which humans are similar and different, is and always has been a reality in the work- place as well as on campuses. Inclusion, on the other hand, is a choice. How an organization defines diversity forms the basis of its diversity and inclusion process and frames the conversations of leaders and employees, administrators and students. The dimensions of diversity depict those categories of similarity and difference around which there is inclusion and exclusion. Developed by Lee Gardenswartz and Anita Rowe, the model depicting the Four Layers of Diversity illustrates a wide range of differences that affect interactions and orga- nizational operations.

This entry illustrates the dimensions of diversity from a widely used model of various aspects of the diversity construct. With personality at the core, the model includes elements of diversity that are generally outside the individual’s control, including age, gender, ethnicity, physical/mental ability, sexual orientation, and race. The next ring of the model identifies the external aspects of diversity that affect an individual’s identity. Finally, the last ring enumerates aspects of the organization that affect diversity within. At each level, the impact of diver- sity on domestic and global organizations, in both corporate and academic contexts, will be explored.


At the center of the model is personality, the unique style of interacting that each individual has. Some people are introverted, while others are outgoing; some confront in conflict, and others seek harmony; some are more reflective and introspective, others more active and outspoken. Organizations often have preferred styles: for example, “We like self-starters and go-getters here” or “If you’re not analytical, no one will listen to your ideas.”

Internal Dimensions of Diversity

Beyond the central core of personality, the six internal dimensions of diversity, referred to in the early days of diversity work as primary dimensionsby Marilyn Loden and Judy Rosener, have a profound influence on perceptions, expectations, and opportunities. In addition, these dimensions are, for the most part, beyond an individual’s control. The six primary dimensions are age, gender, ethnicity, physical/mental ability, sexual ori- entation, and race.

Figure 1 Four Layers of Diversity

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Source: Originally published in Gardenswartz, L., & Rowe, A. (1994). Diverse teams at work. Burr Ridge, IL: Irwin Professional. Copyright © 1994, Society for Human Resource Management, Alexandria, Virginia. All rights reserved. Reproduced by permission. Portions adapted from Loden and Rosener (1991, pp. 18–19).


Age is currently one of the most talked about dimensions of diversity, particularly in the workplace. The era in which one grows up puts an indelible imprint on values and expectations. Consider the differences between a postwar baby boomer, raised by Depression-era parents; a Generation X’er, growing up in the affluence of the 1980s; and a GenY’er, accustomed to the latest technology. Maturity levels and life experiences leave their mark as well. Stereotypes abound at both ends of the spectrum. Younger staff sometimes complain of not being taken seriously and of being accused of wanting too much too soon, of being entitled. Older staff often feel that they are discounted as out of date, technophobic, and resistant to change.


While it is no longer a surprise to encounter a female mechanic or a male nurse, expectations about gender roles still linger. All individuals are socialized into gender-appropriate behaviors and expectations, yet gender roles continue to evolve over time. In addition, the same behavior may be perceived differently when exhib- ited by one gender or the other. An aggressive male manager may be seen as in charge and a leader, while a female manager behaving in the same way might be viewed as pushy and arrogant. A woman asking for time off for a child’s school performance may be seen as not dedicated enough to her work, while her male

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colleague making the same request might be viewed as a model parent. Another aspect of the gender dimen- sion that is more prevalent recently concerns addressing the needs of individuals who are transgendered or who are going through the gender reassignment process.


An individual’s nationality (passport culture) or ethnic background includes aspects such as native language and culture. Some people proclaim their heritage as well as their current cultural identity and define them- selves as Mexican American, Japanese Brazilian, or Chinese Canadian. Others label themselves only by their country of origin (e.g., Cuban, Russian, or South African). Some with multiple or unknown nationalities in their backgrounds identify themselves as “just plain Canadian.”

Ethnic differences can bring variations in cultural norms, holiday observances, food preferences, language proficiency, and group affiliation. Cultural patterns can also influence a person’s values, beliefs, and behav- iors, such as willingness to disagree with the boss or strategies for providing feedback. One’s first language and proficiency in an adopted one are also aspects of ethnicity. Non-native English speakers often report that others assume that they are less intelligent and competent because of their accented English.

Physical Ability

Approximately 57 million Americans have some kind of physical disability. Some of these impairments are visible, such as paralysis or blindness. Others, such as hearing loss, diabetes, or dyslexia, are not readily ap- parent. Those who have physical disabilities often comment on the discomfort they perceive that able-bodied individuals have in dealing with them. Many organizations have added mental/emotional ability to this catego- ry to include aspects that relate to mental health.

Sexual Orientation

Human sexual orientation can be viewed as a continuum, with some individuals being heterosexual, some bisexual, and some gay or lesbian. While those who are heterosexual generally express their orientation in casual conversations when referring to wives, husbands, and family activities, those who are gay, lesbian, or bisexual do not always have such freedom. While same-sex partner benefits and LGBT resource groups have been common in many organizations for more than a decade, judgments, inappropriate humor, and dis- comfort in dealing with sexual orientation still exist in many places. As with all dimensions of diversity, the organization’s concern is to create an environment where people can bring their whole identities to work or to campus and be free to devote energy to their tasks rather than having to be preoccupied with hiding parts of themselves.


Many individuals proudly claim to be “color blind,” often mistakenly assuming that this is a compliment to a person of color. According to Janet Elsea, in her book The Four Minute Sell, in the United States, skin color is the first thing we notice about one another. Race is not a biologically accurate category since there is more genetic variation within a racial group than between groups. However, race is a sociological construct based on physical aspects such as skin color, eye shape, and hair texture. Many organizations come to recognize

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that they have less racial variation at executive levels than they do among employees, and satisfaction sur- veys often reveal disparities between racial groups. On campuses, a similar pattern often emerges.

External Dimensions

Beyond the internal layer are the external dimensions of diversity, those experiences that influence identity, although individuals have more control over these variables.


Not only does religion provide many people a basic set of values and rules that guide their lives, such as the Ten Commandments or the Noble Eightfold Path, but it also prescribes observances, rituals, and holidays. Seventh-Day Adventists and observant Jews who consider Saturday the Sabbath would not want to work on that day. A Muslim employee who prays five times a day would not be available for noon staff meetings. Food preferences may be directed by religious rules—kosher for Jews, halal for Muslims, and a vegetarian diet for Seventh-Day Adventists. Religion can also become a potentially contentious organizational issue when indi- viduals send religious messages to others or when meetings are opened with a sectarian prayer.


An individual’s type and level of education are clearly factors in both corporate and academic worlds, where specific credentials and résumés are required. This is most obviously true in colleges and universities. In cor- porations, degrees are often noted on name tags, and the type of training one has, technical, business, or scientific, and one’s level of education influence credibility and opportunities. In addition, some organizations have preferred academic institutions from which they recruit or fields of study that are favored.

Marital Status

Marital status connotes various things to different people. Married men are sometimes assumed to be more stable and settled, and married women in their childbearing years can be seen as a dependability risk. Marital status can also have an impact on work group relationships when spouses are included in work-related social events or need to be considered in decisions about promotions or assignments that involve relocation.


Income levels often affect self-esteem, job satisfaction, and stress levels for members of all kinds of organi- zations. Reflected in class status, income can also provide or limit access to education, transportation, and travel. Where people live and what recreational activities they enjoy are usually influenced by income.

Parental Status

Having children means additional responsibility. Child care arrangements and last-minute emergencies due

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to children’s illnesses can sometimes affect meetings and work responsibilities in the corporate world, while affecting students’ performance in academic settings. Employees without children often complain about be- ing disadvantaged by “parental privilege,” being expected to do overtime, extra shifts, and weekend work, while those with young children find it disruptive to get to early-morning meetings, deal with last-minute shift changes, or be called for duty with little warning. Group assignments, field trips, and service learning require- ments present challenges to busy parents attending university programs.


In various organizations throughout the world, there are diverse reactions to individuals with pierced noses, lips, or tongues; colorful tattoos; shaved heads; or even long hair. Major controversies have occurred over men with turbans or women wearing head scarves. These and other appearance factors such as personal size can create barriers to hiring, career advancement, or even academic success in organizations. Although many people have been taught not to judge a book by its cover, appearance influences opinions about others as well as a person’s own self-esteem.

Personal Habits

Personal habits such as smoking, drinking, or exercising can affect health. They can also be catalysts for building or hindering collegial relationships. People who take lunchtime walks or smoking breaks, or go out together for beers may form bonds that can strengthen professional relationships. These activities may also exclude other individuals who do not share the same habits. In addition, any substance abuse problems affect not only health and performance but safety as well.

Recreational Habits

Recreational preferences form another part of the diversity mosaic. Camaraderie builds among those who share a common activity. Networking and relationship building for individuals may take place on the golf course, while doing yoga, or while watching the World Cup matches on television. Some activities serve as levelers, bringing people together, while other activities can exclude. Activities such as a picnic or a 10-kilo- meter run for a cause can help build relationships within the diverse workforce or the campus community.

Geographic Location

The areas where people were raised, and where they presently live, have a bearing on behaviors, attitudes, and access. Cultural norms and paces differ in big cities and small towns, different parts of each country, and the regions of the world. Individuals may have a harder time fitting in when they “aren’t from around here” or may be immediately included because they have a similar background.

Work Experience

Computer analysts, researchers and technicians, accountants and landscape workers, and engineers and educators, all come together and make contributions in each organization. Yet often, some experiences are

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valued over others. Differences can bring value to teams when the contributions of each member are appro- priately utilized. However, teams can also exclude people by discounting their experience. Often, experience in a particular industry or company is preferred, and other experiences are devalued.

Organizational Dimensions

Beyond the internal and external layers are organizational dimensions that can be the source of assumptions and opportunities—helping or hindering teamwork, collaboration, and effectiveness.

Functional Level or Classification

No matter how flat the management or administrative structure, all organizations have some kind of hierarchy. This chain of command creates a sense of order and security and, at the same time, can cause barriers because of a perceived caste system. Levels or classification labels may serve as coveted signs of status, indications of pay differentials, or sources of power.

Management Status

It is rare to find an organization in which there is no “us versus them” feeling between nonmanagerial and managerial staff. In academic contexts, this divisiveness occurs among staff, faculty, and administration. Be- cause of differences in responsibilities and perspectives, the concerns and viewpoints of managerial and non- managerial personnel are often not the same. These differences can help a staff or department get a richer picture of an issue in order to solve a problem. However, they can sometimes put people at odds with one another and trigger assumptions and stereotypes. Comments such as “They don’t care about us, and they don’t want to hear about our pressures” are heard from one side of the divide. “They just want us to punch in and punch out; they don’t care about the bigger picture” is a complaint voiced from the other camp.

Department/Unit/Work Group

The professional home for individuals is often not the organization as a whole but usually their own depart- ment or unit, where relationships are built and careers developed. Yet all departments are not created equal. Stereotypes about specific departments or units are common. Some departments are revenue generating, while others are seen as overhead; some are innovative and cutting edge, and others are dysfunctional. Such differences often play out in obstacles to interdepartmental communication and cooperation.

Union Affiliation

In countries where there are labor unions, it matters whether individuals in an organization are union members or not. The kind of relationships that exist between union and nonunion employees and with management or administration can add another wrinkle to the diversity fabric. Attitudes toward management and contracts often influence interactions on the job.

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Work Location

Whether individuals work in the main building or in a trailer in the parking lot, at the main campus or off-cam- pus, in the field or at headquarters, can make a difference in viewpoints, needs, and attitudes. Work location not only influences communication and visibility, but it can also be seen as a sign of status or value. More recently, greater demands for flexibility and technology that enables virtual work have led many organizations to allow staff to work remotely from home.


Promotions, schedules, vacations, overtime, and other perks are often doled out on the basis of seniority. Union contracts and organizational policies have traditionally used seniority as a fair and accepted way to give advantages. Seniority may bring some disadvantages as well. During downsizings, complaints are occa- sionally heard that some of the best employees are let go because of their short time with the organization, while those with more seniority are kept regardless of competence.

Work Content/Field

The kind of work that people do accounts for yet another difference. Engineers and accountants generally do not see things the same way. Neither do lawyers, or sales or human resources staff. Nor do professors, cler- ical assistants, or statisticians. Each type of work is a subculture of its own that gives its members a method- ology for defining and working out problems. In addition, each field of work has its own status.

All these dimensions represent areas around which there may be similarity and common ground as well as dif- ferences. When well managed and leveraged, these dimensions have the potential to bring new perspectives, ideas, and viewpoints as needed by the organization. However, if mismanaged, they can sow the seeds of conflict and misunderstanding, which sabotage teamwork and productivity and hinder effectiveness. To max- imize the ability to manage this complex set of differences, organizations need to gather information about perceptions of staff at all levels regarding inclusion and exclusion around all dimensions of diversity. Equipped with this information, the organization can set priorities and create a strategic plan to increase inclusion where needed.

See alsoDiversity and Inclusion, Definitions of; Diversity in Higher Education; Ethnicity; Global Diversity Man- agement; Lay Theory of Race; Race and Human Biological Variation; Sexual Orientation

• seniority • Seventh Day Adventists • diversity • staff • food preferences • overtime • sexual orientation

Lee Gardenswartz & Anita Rowe http://dx.doi.org/10.4135/9781483346267.n84 10.4135/9781483346267.n84

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