Universal Design is essential to addressing inequity at work—Here’s why

System Design

In this article, Erin Huner, PhD, Director of Culture and Inclusion at Ivey Business School explains how looking closely at system design and expectations is crucial to addressing inequity within our organizations and society. Further, Huner proposes how applying universal design thinking enables us to create more inclusive spaces. 


The need for a holistic approach to Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion 

Over the past few decades, increased attention has been brought to issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion in workplaces, with much of the work focusing on increasing diversity. Many early diversity projects focused on increasing diverse representation—classic examples include affirmative action initiatives. 

Representation in hiring matters a great deal and is an important area for organizations to focus their efforts, but increasing representation alone does not address the inequality and exclusion that exists within organizations. If organizations do not actively work to uncover the spaces and places where systemic inequality and exclusion exist within their systems, such as human resources, or within their organizational culture, then they run the risk of having exceptionally high rates of attrition of equity-deserving individuals.  

Equity and inclusion work requires holistic strategies that address the inequality and exclusion that exists within the culture of the organization, the systems that support the operations of the organization, and the hiring pathways to the organization. If all three of these critical areas of an organization are not included in inclusion planning and efforts, the retention of, and more importantly, the success and belonging of, diverse talent will not occur over the long term. 


Looking at the system’s flaws rather than the individual’s 

Historically, across organizations, we have placed the responsibility for thriving on the individual. Traditionally across many systems (e.g., Post-Secondary Education; Health Care; Financial Systems), when faced with individuals who have limited access and success to a given system, the response has been to see the issue as being located within the individual. As a result, the traditional approach has been to solve the problem by identifying insufficiencies in the individual rather than asking where the barriers exist in the system. Here we might think about the ways that care-giving responsibilities have disproportionately affected the capacity for women to progress through their careers. Initial responses from many organizations put the onus on the woman employee to manage this delicate balancing act, with very little support to do so. Only recently have organizations begun to think about how their cultural structures may have contributed to not only increasing the impact that caregiving has on individuals, particularly women, but also how they’ve created a barrier to success and access to career growth. For instance, if an organization recognizes that the majority of its decision-making meetings occur after hours or off-site, this practice will disproportionately create a barrier to access for any person in the company who cares for another individual and does so once the workday has been completed.  

If off-site spaces are the norm for finalizing corporate decisions, then again, the organization needs to consider: what barriers might exist for an individual to travel to that space? How do power and privilege operate in the chosen space? For example, is it gendered? Are there historical and contemporary experiences of racism that occur in these spaces; are they accessible to a wide variety of disabilities? A classic example of an off-site space for organizational decisions is the golf course, a space that, for various reasons (historical contexts, gender, race, physical ability, time restraint, financial barriers), limits the access for which individuals can participate in the conversation. 

The result is that we have not put the burden of change on those with power – designers and upholders of the systems we work within. If we begin to shift our questions about thriving to ask: what kinds of systems do we need to collectively design so that our systems expect the broadest and most diverse set of individuals to experience thriving? At the root of this shift is also the understanding that we have to begin to uncover who the system was intentionally designed to support. Who did the system expect to show up, and maybe even more importantly, what characteristics of an individual was the system designed to support, and therefore enable the success of?  


Making individual accommodations vs. Universal Design  

Systems are inherently designed with expectations. We know that our cultural systems, human resources systems, organizational systems, and learning systems, for example, all have expectations about who will show up into the system, and more importantly, who will thrive in the system and have success.  

If we commit to doing the work of making these expectations explicit, then we can trace the necessary human characteristics that the system has been designed to both recognize and afford success to. Once we do this work, we can then uncover that, most often, the characteristics the system has been designed to recognize, and that lead to and are optimized for success, are exceptionally narrow. If we take learning systems in higher education as an example, we very quickly uncover, that the characteristics of the type of learner our systems were designed to recognize, are optimized for, and support are exceptionally narrow. A key indicator of this design expectation is the increasing number of accommodations our learning systems need to provide as a means of providing equitable learning access to a broader and more diverse set of learners.  

Sense of belonging is often diminished when individuals require accommodations post-hoc. That is, when we approach inclusion by offering accommodations to a system in a reactionary manner, individuals report diminished sense of belonging because it becomes very clear that the system did not expect their inclusion to begin with, which is reinforced through the accommodation process. But, when we are pro-active, and seek out the advice and input of a diverse set of individuals who will participate in a system, or work culture, we are able to actively design changes to the system that signal sense of belonging and inclusion, because individuals are able to recognizes their needs were considered, and supported through access and changes to the system that allows their fulsome participation.  


Reimagining system expectations to be more inclusive 

Pathways to inclusion require that we broaden the characteristics that the system design expected. When we attend to this work, we must remember that humans engineer and intentionally design systems. Thus, we need to challenge current system expectations and re-design systems to expect broader characteristics of diversity. These may be intersecting characteristics such as race, gender socioeconomic status, educational attainment, and disability, for instance. Universal design principles generally ask us to design with the most complex and diverse user of the system in mind. If we can design equitable access for human beings who express any number of complex intersections in their lives related to race, gender, socio-economic status, educational attainment and disability, then the broadest group of humans should encounter not only success, but inclusion and sense of belonging in the system.  


There isn’t “one right way” to create inclusion at work 

One of the most important aspects of thinking about equity and inclusion is to recognize that it is highly context-specific and therefore must be adapted and continuously updated. I am skeptical of EDI work that is rolled out as orthodoxy, because at its root, I believe EDI work has as its central focus the work of rebuilding inequitable systems across any number of scales in organizations. Systems are complex, dynamic entities that in most cases are nonlinear in their design and in their actions. The danger in approaching EDI work through as set of linear and hierarchical rules is that these modalities are poorly matched to the problems that define inequality and exclusion in complex systems.  

If the goal of EDI work is to redress historical and contemporary sites of exclusion and inequality in our organizational systems, then we need to adopt design thinking approaches that have the capacity to intervene in these systems. We also need to be mindful that interventions change systems, in both intended and unintended ways, and so the practice of equity and inclusion continues.  

Ideally, the embedded nature of universal design thinking approaches will become a regularized feature of EDI work, and not the interventions themselves, and the interventions will remain context-dependent on the needs addressed by the users of our organizational systems.  



Associated Faculty

Erin Huner

Erin Huner

Director, Culture and Inclusion

About The Ivey Academy at Ivey Business School

The Ivey Academy at Ivey Business School is the home for executive Learning and Development (L&D) in Canada. It is Canada’s only full-service L&D house, blending Financial Times top-ranked university-based executive education with talent assessment, instructional design and strategy, and behaviour change sustainment.  

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