Diversity refers to the variation among individuals including race, gender, ethnicity, language, nationality, culture, sexual orientation, religion, and more.
The spirit of diversity within a virtual community celebrates these variations and creates a safe, positive and nurturing space where differences among members can be explored. Each individual can make valuable contributions by drawing from their unique perspectives, experiences, and background.
Diversity empowers community leaders and members to understand, respect, and to truly value differences as a strength and advantage. A diverse group reaches its highest potential when members feel valued and safe. But the term diversity can mean different things to different people. Gen Xers and baby boomers often think of diversity as hard-demographics like race, religion, or gender. Meanwhile, millennials view diversity as an effort to combine different backgrounds, perspectives, and ideas to develop innovative solutions using a co-creation model (based on a study by the Leadership Center for Inclusion at the Deloitte University).
Traditionally speaking, diversity includes things like nationality, race, gender, and occupation. But, within a modern framework, diversity can (and should) also include a person’s unique skills, abilities, lived experience, and temperament.
|Traditional Diversity Measures||Contemporary Diversity Measures|
Inclusion is the effort to invite everyone into your virtual community and ensure that members feel like they’re a part of a team.
Inclusion describes the thoughtful creation of a collaborative, supportive, and respectful environment where differences are welcome and members treat one another with respect. In practice, this requires community managers to understand the needs of their unique and diverse virtual community members and to create a digital space where people feel a sense of belonging and that they are valued.
Why do diversity and inclusion matter for virtual communities?
Oftentimes, talented people will join a community because of its mission as well as its diversity and inclusivity. Within the landscape of the social impact space, there are multiple communities offering potential members a place to invest their time and energy.
This means that competition to draw members to your specific virtual community can be fierce.
Two real-world examples of inclusivity efforts:
- To prevent racial segregation, Singapore enacted policies that ensure every public housing apartment block includes a balanced ratio (consistent with the wider population) of Chinese, Malay, and Indian residents.
- The IMD Business School examined how diversity of a neighbourhood affects people’s likelihood to help someone in the aftermath of a disaster, such as the Boston Marathon bombings. They found that people who lived in racially diverse areas were more likely to offer help to those in need after a disaster like the bombings.
Relevancy for virtual communities
Diversity and inclusion will help you build a strong virtual community in many ways.
Broadening your membership base through diversity.Check out The New York Times profile of several unionized, female superintendents. If the supers’ online community is tailored towards men, how likely are women in the group to feel comfortable taking on a greater role?
Ensuring long-term success of your community.The future of your community relies on millennials and Generation Y. These generations are the most diverse in history. In the book When Millennials Take Over, the author says that millennials, who have grown up surrounded by diversity now expect to see it reflected in the communities they join.
Driving success through diversity in your membership.Facilitating collaboration and co-creation across diverse groups of people requires awareness and sustained effort. Diversity and inclusion help serve your virtual community as it achieves its mission.
It also provides:
- More Impact. When members feel psychologically safe they can bring their authentic selves to the group. This leads to more open conversations, greater innovation, productivity, and retention. It is also critical to create an atmosphere where all members feel they are a valuable asset to the virtual community and that they play a role in helping to achieve its mission.
- Robust Results. Diverse virtual communities are ecosystems. Valuing different points of view and opinions and creating a space where they can be shared and heard without judgment allows a range of perspectives and skills, engagements and solutions to emerge. When a diverse group of people gather to solve a complex problem, cross-fertilisation of ideas helps to stress-test their efficacy and ultimately build more robust solutions.
- Inner Growth. When members feel comfortable expressing themselves and their ideas, it allows the entire virtual community to be more honest and vulnerable in their exchanges and engagements. This empowers individuals to challenge each other’s assumptions, perspectives, and ideas in a respectful and productive way.
Important Note! There are situations when exclusion is appropriate and necessary. Diversity does not mean a virtual community is required to accept every point of view. Hate speech, for example, is not expressing a point of view.
When people have different opinions or conflicts, clear codes of conduct, value and purpose statements, and guidelines will help you and your members navigate conversations and joint actions more productively and inclusively.
Our personal bias can be a challenge when it comes to building an inclusive community. As a community builder, you need to be aware of your own biases and those of your team and community members. Generally, there are two types of bias:
- Explicit bias
- Implicit/unconscious bias
refers to the attitudes and beliefs we have about a person or group on a conscious level. Much of the time, these biases and their expressions arise as a direct result of a perceived threat. The consequence can be unfair treatment or mental and physical separation.
Expressions of explicit bias such as discrimination or hate speech occur as the result of deliberate thought. Thus, they can be consciously changed. What kind of action can community managers take?
- People are more motivated to control their biases if there are social norms in place which state that harmful behaviour is not accepted. Capture inclusive behaviour in your community guidelines, share it during onboarding processes and reinforce it in challenging situations.
- Create situations in which members who are different from one another can increase trust and reduce their bias by getting to know each other.
are social stereotypes about certain groups of people that individuals form outside their own conscious awareness. These implicit biases are often the product of our internalized and/or a learned definition of ‘normal’ shaped by our experience, local or cultural environment, social community, and media.
Check your unconscious bias with this short video or, try this quick exercise:
- Picture a group of 10 people.
- Now, picture a diverse group of 10 people.
- Were the two groups you pictured in your mind the same?
According to Harvard University Professor, Dr. Mahzarin Banaji, our mindset is not as inclusive as we think it is. The human brain has evolved to make lightning-fast decisions, draw on a variety of assumptions and experiences as a reaction of spotted differences. In prehistoric times, anything different from the self was seen as a threat which makes us primed to prefer those who are similar to us. And we are sensitive on various levels: obvious difference (gender, race, age), subtler differences (fashion, manners, education), and even invisible differences (energy, humour, values).
Consequently, we might give more opportunities to people who remind us of ourselves.
Nevertheless, evolution is no excuse. Knowing where our unconscious bias comes from can be a first step to analysing our own behaviour and judgements and help us take active steps to challenge our assumptions.
With critical thinking we can challenge ourselves and other community members to discuss biases.
We should all take this seriously because the harm caused by exclusion is not always visible. Neuroscientists have proven that social exclusion has the same neurological impact as physical pain. To avoid or end these social pains, members will leave the community.
Do not think about inclusion as a one-size-fits-all application where everyone is treated exactly the same. Get to know the individuals in your virtual community and strive to provide each member with tools, space, connection, and information they need to be empowered.
Exercise: Unconscious Biases
Imagine you are planning an in-person event for your virtual community. Make a list of steps and actions you can take to make the event more inclusive for a diverse group of attendees. As you make your list, pay special attention to any biases or assumptions you may be making. These can include things like assuming members will drink alcohol or eat meat or, assuming a venue is fully accessible to persons with disabilities.
For inspiration about how to speak about inclusion within an organisation, take a look at this video from RBC or, if you wish to dive deeper take a look at the Implicit project where you can take a test to check your biases.
Inclusivity barriers keep members from being actively engaged contributors to a virtual community. As a community manager, you must consider different activities and apply a range of strategies to identify and remove barriers.
Do not assume that members are the same or have the same needs even within a homogenous virtual community.
Take a minute to read this list of inclusivity barriers that may prohibit members from fully engaging in a virtual community, and suggested strategies for removing them.
In an international network, members will speak many different languages. Decide as a group which language you will use to communicate and invite members to express themselves in other ways. Try hosting calls in two languages simultaneously or invite participants to share comments in their native language (if live translation is possible).
Proficiency and literacy
People who are more proficient in a community’s agreed-upon language may take over or dominate the conversations. Make space for people who need more time to express themselves and do not judge or dwell on language mistakes.
It is often easier for wealthier members to join or actively participate. Adapting membership fees and providing travel grants can reduce financial barriers and increase inclusion.
It is a challenge to schedule meetings at a time that works for all members across time zones. Schedule meetings at varying times to avoid favouring certain time zones over others. This tool can help.
Access to technology, technology literacy, connectivity quality, safety of communication tools, and commonly used technology are very different among geographical regions and age groups.
Be sure to select tools your virtual community is comfortable using. Offer to train your members to use technology tools that enable participation in the community and share recordings or meeting minutes to help them stay informed and up to date.
Embracing diversity is not common in all cultures. At times, local cultures are themselves a barrier to diversity.
Some members may not have access to travel. Being part of an international virtual community might be the first time some members encounter diversity within a collaborative group. Be open, invite questions, and give space.
Male-dominated spaces and culture can make it difficult for others to be seen and heard within your virtual community.
Create a safe space where women and non-binary or gender non-conforming community members can speak freely. It is also important to consider those with young children when scheduling events and conversations.
“The web, for instance, is still a very difficult space for persons with disabilities to navigate, something that, for instance, is a result of perhaps able-bodied people gaining prominence as the creators of tools, while not readily ‘seeing’ those who may not have the same abilities as well.”Nanjira Sambuli
Invite diversity and exemplify inclusion through the values of your virtual community.
From companies who place focus and value on diversity we can learn that:
- More than 75% of Fortune 1,000 companies have diversity initiatives.
“Companies that embrace diversity and inclusion in all aspects of their business statistically outperform their peers” Josh Bersin
- 56% of the companies surveyed strongly agree that diversity helps drive innovation.
Thinking of diversity and inclusion as checkboxes to be ticked-off will make it very difficult for you to collaborate effectively with your community.
Cultivating an atmosphere of inclusivity is the responsibility of every member within a virtual community. However, the community builder and leaders must set the tone for the group and lead by example. The ultimate goal is for members to feel they are valued and that they belong.
Subtle actions and strategies can have more impact than an organised campaign to enhance or increase diversity. For instance, leading by example and creating a welcoming atmosphere within a virtual community can be more meaningful than a one-off training session on diversity.
Leading by example includes: Fair treatment of members and equal access to opportunity, collaborative conflict resolution processes, commitment to diversity from leadership, representation of diverse groups and points of view at all levels and among partners.
Diversity is the mix of people and inclusion is helping that mix of people to work well together.
Community builders and virtual communities can promote diversity and inclusion by, a) building a solid foundation, and b) taking intentional action.
- Building a Solid Foundation
- Develop a plan for creating a diverse community with inclusive events and identify metrics that will help you track your progress.
- Ask for input and feedback from different people in your virtual community when you are creating, implementing, and evolving your diversity and inclusion strategy.
- Assemble a virtual team to help you overcome challenges and regularly discuss areas that need improvement.
- Make diversity and inclusion part of your virtual community’s values and hold leaders and members accountable.
- Make diversity and inclusion a part of the onboarding for new members.
- Share a public statement about your commitment to diversity and inclusion on the community website (see RBC for a company example or the dedicated page on the Singularity University website).
- Train leaders (and when appropriate, members) on topics like unconscious bias.
- Collect data and track progress, for example, diversity of event participants and speakers, community leaders, etc.
- Taking Intentional Action
- Recruit new members, advisors, your team, and volunteers from places that are less familiar to you and place your focus on skills, fit, and added value.
- Work to ensure that ideas, speakers, and content presented at virtual or in-person events come from diverse participants and that the topics covered are relevant to different groups within your community.
- When hosting an event, actively extend invitations to participants from a range of professional, cultural, experiential backgrounds.
- Make sure your events are accessible and consider things like venue accessibility, language translation, childcare, and time of day.
- Ensure your presentation materials, images, and social media include a diverse group of people and avoid stereotypes.
- In times of tensions
- Be mindful of how power dynamics can influence people’s behaviour and/or limit their contributions to group discussions.
- If inappropriate comments are made, address them in a way that moves the dialogue forward, responding with curiosity and compassion and not shame or blame and remember your codes of conduct. Try to avoid simply smoothing the situation and decide if a group conversation about the comment or a one-on-one conversation is more appropriate.
- To overcome biases and become more inclusive it is crucial to establish a culture of honest feedback. Provide members with a way to give you feedback and share feedback with each other.
Thinking about how diverse members experience your virtual community is the first step towards building a community that serves all members. Singularity University, a global learning and innovation community using exponential technologies to tackle the world’s biggest challenges, made diversity and inclusion a priority. In fact, their commitment is reflected in their recruitment processes, community leader training, and data collection, and put into action during in-person meetings. Through our collaborative platform we offer educational programs, courses, and summits; enterprise strategy, leadership, and innovation programs; programs to support and scale startups and promote social impact; and online news and content.