What has anthropology got to do with diversity, equity, and inclusion?

Anthropology’s understanding of cultural diversity is key to strengthening diversity, equity and (social) inclusion (DEI) strategies. Anthropology as the study of humankind tries to understand patterns of behavior, values and beliefs. Overall in this scenario, culture is what people “do” and the overarching “glue“ that holds together all of the different puzzle pieces of behavior, values and beliefs together, expressed by symbols, rituals, etc. This applies as much to cultures at large as well as to subcultures within a given society, such as organizational businesses cultures with their distinct set of values[1]. One of the key tools that anthropology uses is its human-centric and holistic approach to better understand the insider perspective, may it be through ethnographic research, qualitative data collection, participant observation, and listening deeply to the lived experiences of others.

I have learned not to take my identity for granted. When I lived in Seoul over twenty years ago, I was unprepared for that experience. I was perceived as an outsider, felt uncomfortable and uneasy in various situations, which led to numerous misunderstandings.  It was a key moment in my life because previously I had not been aware of my unearned privileges[2] due to my white skin color and had not thought about the concept of insider and outsider, majority and minority and Whiteness.

This wholly disruptive experience led me to pursue a degree in anthropology, learn in depth about cultural diversity, appreciate different perspectives, work with underrepresented groups and foster equal access to resources for all members of our society. Now, as an anthropologist, I recognize that my DEI self-awareness began over two decades ago in Seoul by offering me a window to look critically at myself in relation to the “Other” and how I am viewed by others. I had to see, accept and learn from my differences and only then could I change and grow.

DEI therefore is about cultural transformation and change, which I know does not come easily. Most importantly, change takes time because everyone has been socialized in a certain manner and does not necessarily question their own preconceived notions, ethnocentrism, biases and privileges, which are necessary first steps in everyone’s DEI journey. This is an important task, otherwise businesses are more likely to inadvertently hire or blindly work among “mini-me’s“, not diversify the workforce and miss out on potential talents that could contribute to the success of the company. [3]

I argue this is what anthropology has to do with diversity, equity and inclusion. Due to anthropology’s understanding of the various facets of culture and what makes us human, this culturally focused discipline among other fields (critical race studies, gender studies, sociology and others) is well situated to give insights based on an assessment of companies that want to pursue, foster and strengthen a diverse workforce, by revealing how different cultures within an organization interact.

Anthropology’s understanding of cultural diversity is key to strengthening diversity[4], equity[5] and (social) inclusion[6] (DEI) strategies[7]. Using the words of Gillian Tett, the anthropological perspective has much to offer by “defining our common humanity and celebrating diversity” (Tett 2021: 233). As such, anthropology as a field has always been in the business of making sense of human behavior, looking for similarities and differences in a given organization, by analyzing the patterns of intercultural communication, the unequal treatment of certain groups, the power structures and the reasons why only some groups are excluded while others are not, thereby, understanding how people make sense of their world, etc. As anthropologists, we are keenly trained to think holistically, listen and observe patterns of culture, which is rather important since intersectionality (interplay of several dimensions of a person’s identity) can result in possible forms of discrimination and result in (micro-) aggressions that have a direct effect on diversity.

Diversity brings challenges because all employees bring different beliefs, values and experiences to the workplace, which has a direct influence on their motivation, productivity, etc. These hurdles can be significant to overcome, even when all employees work for the same company within one organizational business culture with their different departments and various subcultures. In such a case, while some people may be and feel treated differently, therefore not accepted, others might have not been recruited in the first place due to their differences.

Even when a company has “secured diverse talent/s, the retention and promotion of this is a key priority” (McKinsey & Company 2020: 25). How about asking others what is it that makes them feel that they belong? To manage diversity while creating a safe space for diverse group members and cultivate inclusion, intercultural competence should be considered a prerequisite. Intercultural competence allows for having a non-judgmental stance and respecting the differences, again something that anthropology students learn over the course of their studies. Therefore, intercultural competence is essential for fostering inclusive communities and truly live diversity.

So, who exactly might need training to better to navigate this cross-cultural landscape? Rohini Anand and Mary-Frances Winter argue that “positioning diversity as a competency has created another major paradigm shift; the assumption is no longer that only certain groups need training (e.g., ‘white’ men or minorities) but rather that all employees need to be more cross-culturally competent in an increasingly global world. It is just as important for an African American male to learn more about his Chinese coworker or vice versa” (2008: 362). While gaining cross-cultural knowledge, employees should also be learning about the organization and its culture.

Meanwhile organizational cultures have to be inclusive to all cultural groups working for the company. Diversity in this sense is not just about a diverse workforce, but also about how to meet the needs of all employees and making sure that equitable access is given to everyone. People in leadership positions have an important role to play in this regard as they should lead by example by creating a climate of inclusion and belonging and teaching its culture and values. [8]

The key here is to adapt the DEI strategy to the local context, which is also an argument that Rohini Anand continues to repeat in her recent publication “Leading Global Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion: A Guide for Systemic Change in Multinational Organizations“, published in 2021.[9] Understanding diversity, seeing the other person, being able to initiate a change of perspective, shifting worldviews and developing an environment where every employee feels validated, is an inherent step in the right direction.

Businesses can lead by example through the creation of diverse and inclusive workplaces. Applied Anthropologists, as assessors, consultants or trainers can be a great asset to cultivate and guide this kind of cultural transformation of companies, by aligning DEI strategies to the company goals and making diversity real and not just a buzzword. At the same time, we should remind ourselves that implementing more diversity in the workforce is not the answer to everything. Systemic challenges might be the reason why some people cover up their identity to avoid stigmatization. Another example is the wage gap and the reason why women tend to work in care jobs and earn less than men. This has to do with socio-economical inequality and values that we attach to this kind of job but not a lack of diversity. [10]

Economical equality, tackling systemic inequalities, dismantling forms of discriminations and embracing diversity do not have to be conflicting ideas. Equality of opportunity for all should be our driving force.


[1] A recent publication is Hasting and Meyer’s book about the “Netflix” culture, as one of many examples of corporate cultures and their own set of values.

[2] Peggy MacIntosh lists various examples of these unearned white privileges, have a look at the bibliography for more info’s.

[3] A diverse workforce has the ability to drive innovation, retain employees, reach a wider global audience and promoting  a wider perspective on  user experience/customer needs, among other benefits. Especially in Germany, fostering diversity in the workplace is also a way to counter the foreseeable skills shortage.

[4] I will use a broad definition of diversity such as race, ethnicity, gender, disability, geographic origin, religion, educational level, sexual orientation, age, etc. For detailed information on various diversity dimensions, have a look at the four layers model by Gardenswartz & Rowe https://www.gardenswartzrowe.com/why-g-r. At the same time, the definition of diversity is always embedded within the local context where it is used. Therefore the diversity strategy may vary in its scope, as the local context, the historical inequities and/or the colonial past have to be taken into account.

[5] Equity: Absence of unjust differences in the treatment of a certain person, as in Hendricks and Donnir (2019) and creating fair access to opportunities tailored to specific needs of the individual.

[6]  Social inclusion is defined by the United Nations as „the process of improving the terms of participation in society, particularly for people who are disadvantaged, through enhancing opportunities, access to resources, voice and respect for rights”, for more information please follow this link https://www.un.org/esa/socdev/rwss/2016/chapter1.pdf

[7] Motivations to implement DIE strategies in companies can be based on a business, ethical or legal case.

[8] The use of inclusive language should not be overlooked.

[9] To know more about diversity at work among the OECD societies, have a look at https://www.oecd.org/els/diversity-at-work-policy-brief-2020.pdf

[10] At the same time there is also a gender bias in caregiving professions, giving an advantage to women being hired over men, not because of their competency, but due to the role of perceived  „warmth“ (Halper, Cowgill, Colleen and  Rios 2019)

Works cited

Anand, Rohini, and Mary-Frances Winters. “A retrospective view of corporate diversity training from 1964 to the present.” Academy of Management Learning & Education 7.3 (2008): 356-372.

Anand, Rohini. Leading Global Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion: A Guide for Systemic Change in           Multinational Organizations. Berret-Koehler Publishers, 2021.

Halper, Leah & Cowgill, Colleen and Rios, Kimberly.Gender bias in caregiving professions: The role of perceived warmth. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 2019.

Hastings, Reed and Erin Meyer. No Rules Rules. Netflix and the Culture of Reinvention. Penguin Press, 2020.

Hendricks, Melany L., and Gordon M. Donnir. “Equity, Equality and Justice in Social Science Research in Africa.” Research Ethics Forum, Springer International Publishing, 2019, pp. 181–196. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-15402-8_13.

McIntosh, Peggy . “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack“. Peace and Freedom    Magazine, July/August, 1989, pp.1-3. https://psychology.umbc.edu/files/2016/10/White-Privilege_McIntosh-1989.pdf.

McKinsey & Company. “Diversity wins: How inclusion matters ,“2020. https://www.mckinsey.com/~/media/mckinsey/featured%20insights/diversity%20and%20inclusion/diversity%20wins%20how%20inclusion%20matters/diversity-wins-how-inclusion-matters-vf.pdf.

Tett, Gillian. Anthro-Vision. How Anthropology can explain business and life.Penguin Books, 2021.

Dr. Noémie Hermeking
Hermeking holds a Ph.D. in sociocultural anthropology from Indiana University in Bloomington, USA and an M.A. in social anthropology and ethnology from l´École des hautes études en sciences sociales (EHESS) in Paris. She has done extensive research with Indigenous communities both in Canada and the USA. After her return to Germany, she is currently working as an intercultural trainer (owner of nhtrainings) and a senior project leader to empower disadvantaged youth.

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