By Linda Jimenez
School is out and family vacations are in full swing. As I look around and see children and families at play, I see the greatest example of diversity and inclusion within family networks. There is a whole new dimension of diversity—from traditional to adoptive, step and multicultural to single and gay families. The very notion of “family” offers diversity practitioners some degree of ownership through their personal experiences of family. However, as we introduce the topic of what constitutes a “family” in our D&I efforts, we soon recognize that this can highlight discomfort, resistance and challenges to what is defined as a normal and valued unit in our society.
More and more children are being raised in families that don’t fit the mold of ‘Dick and Jane’ story books. The conversation mirrors other diversity discussions surrounding race, ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation, but the topic of family diversity also includes dialogue around powerful stereotypes and biases of what constitutes a family.
Issues of family diversity are becoming critically important as the demographics of families in this country, and the world, change. Yet they are often overlooked or ignored in diversity discussions. That’s why I was delighted when ANGLE, WellPoint’s LGBT ERG, hosted a teleseminar in June, “Building an Inclusive World … Raising Diverse Families.” The teleseminar talked about what makes a family, the joy and challenges of being part of a diverse family, and the resources that are available to support the evolving diverse family structure. As diversity practitioners, we need to be comfortable—and knowledgeable—about including opportunities to explore issues of diversity as it pertains to family structure. Our discussions should not only have the potential to heighten awareness about broader diversity issues within family units of gender, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, and blended families, but also help avoid generalizations which sometimes accompany such concepts.
Let’s ask ourselves the question, how can diversity practitioners help others to become more inclusive and accepting of differing family structures, just as we know they should be sensitive to the gender, racial, cultural, and sexual orientation differences of individuals? From my perspective, that begins with developing an initial understanding of the changing demographics of family structures. According to census reports, the number of American children living in a traditional family unit—defined as two opposite sex parents, biological or step—has been steadily decreasing since the 1960s. About 69 percent of children live with two parents, 22 percent live with only their mother, four percent live with only their father, and 4 percent live with neither parent (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2000). Meanwhile, we are seeing a decrease in the number of traditional nuclear families.
How do we put a human face on the various forms of family units we now see—foster, adopted, step, grandparent/relative, gay/lesbian, interracial, etc.? To complement the differences we see, our discussions should also include the unifying commonalities across families—providing for basic needs, child rearing, socialization, establishing and maintaining cultural traditions, and delegating responsibilities and roles. We also need to be self-aware as we manage these discussions and explore any personal prejudices we hold, or have previously held, about non-traditional families (single-parent, adoptive, gay/lesbian, stepparent, multi-racial, etc.).
We need to remember that today textbook depictions of families and family life still remain focused on a traditional nuclear family, with a few ethnic variations of this theme presented in the more progressive versions. These limited depictions of family units represent a standard of family against which we are all to measure our own. Have we truly made progress in our diversity and inclusion efforts when classroom assistance is still most often sought under the moniker of “room mothers?” Let’s hear it for the popular TV sitcom Modern Family, for its efforts to break down the stereotypes and perceptions of the nuclear family and include, embrace, and celebrate the diversity of our family evolution. This television show has opened the doors for us to include family structures in our diversity and inclusion discussions.