Home M3AAWG Blog Why Difference Matters – Dr. Brenda J. Allen, Guest Author
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The Messaging Malware Mobile Anti-Abuse Working Group (M3AAWG), together with the Diversity and Inclusion Committee, is excited to bring M3AAWG members an opportunity to connect and grow with Dr. Brenda J. Allen (Ph.D. Howard University) and the National Center for Women and Information Technology (NCWIT) at our 59th General Meeting in Brooklyn

We will start our Diversity and Inclusion journey on Monday with a dedicated Inclusive Leadership Workshop led by Dr. Allen for M3AAWG Board of Directors, Committee Chairs, and Expert Advisors. Dr. Allen will briefly address members during the opening of our meeting on Tuesday, Oct.10. This will be followed by an opportunity to explore and share perspectives in a facilitated discussion on diversity, identity, and communication. These are important sessions that will serve us both as a global organization with a diverse membership and an organization requiring great ideas from differing perspectives in order to be successful.

I know the great ideas that further our progress in the fight against online abuse come not only from your professional experience but your cultural experience, too. You hold important perspectives based on your gender, age, ethnicity, disability, or religion. And you may have perspectives based on your social traditions or historical perspectives. We need to share perspectives and come to know how they intersect with the world of technology.

Dr. Allen is a Professor Emerita and former Vice Chancellor for Diversity and Inclusion at the University of Colorado Denver and Anschutz Medical Campus. She brings more than three decades of experience to the training and discussion sessions you’ll experience.  Those sessions were made possible by the good work of the D&I Committee, and our expert advisor, Angelica Mushen Mandell.  

I hope you’ll enjoy this special blog Dr. Allen has shared with us to preview some of the concepts she’ll share insights on at our meeting in Brooklyn.  I look forward to seeing you there!

Janet Jones, M3AAWG Board of Directors Chairperson; Chair, Diversity & Inclusion Committee

Why Difference Matters

Brenda J. Allen 

Do you believe that difference matters? Before you answer, please let me explain. When I say “difference,” I’m referring simply to ways that we humans vary from one another based on our social identities. Although people often use the word “diversity” for these distinctions, I prefer “difference” because it aligns better with my perspective on identity. 

To quote sociologist Richard Jenkins: “the notion of identity involves two criteria of comparison between persons or things: similarity and difference.” ¹ Jenkins believes that viewing similarity and difference as interdependent is fundamental to understanding identity. He elaborates: “To say who I am is to say who or what I am not, but it is also to say with whom I have things in common.” ²

I agree with Jenkins. Viewing similarity and difference as labels on a continuum:


invites us to avoid the tendency to separate things into either/or categories. I mean, is there anyone else in the world who is exactly the same as you, or who differs totally from you? Even identical twins have distinctions from one another.

“Difference” Refers to Nondominant AND Dominant Groups

This viewpoint on difference encompasses members of nondominant and dominant groups in our society. So, it differs from typical approaches that focus mainly or only on nondominant categories. ³

For instance, when you think of difference in terms of sexual orientation, what comes to your mind first, straight (heterosexual) or gay (homosexual)? Most people think of gay or LGBTQ+. I would be surprised if you thought of “straight” or “heterosexual.” What about race? If I said we were going to discuss difference and race, most people would think about Black people or other people of color instead of White people. If the topic was gender, “women” or “females” might be your first thought.

Why does this happen? Studies about difference or diversity often discuss how an individual or a group varies from, or compares to, the unspoken norm of the dominant group. This can be a useful way to explore diversity. However, defining difference as ways that humans vary from one another helps to make a crucial point: social identities matter for members of nondominant AND dominant groups, even though they matter differently. 

How do you define “matter”? As a verb, it means to be important, to be of consequence, to count, as in “Your opinion matters to me.” As a noun, it means something of concern: “What’s the matter?” Applying those two definitions of “matter,” means that (1) difference is meaningful; it counts (it matters), and (2) there are a variety of important concerns or issues (matters) related to difference. 

So, to answer my question about difference matters, please consider how I define difference and matters.  As you probably figured out, I definitely believe that difference matters.  Let me tell you why.

Somewhat Surprising Statistics

Although people in the United States are alike in many ways, we need to acknowledge how we differ. First, U.S. society is changing. We’re seeing increases in numbers of persons of color, elderly citizens, people with disabilities, and immigrants. Perhaps you have heard projections. By the year 2030, Hispanics, Blacks, Asians, and other nondominant racial-ethnic groups will account for one-third of the population. By 2040, non-Hispanic White people will for the first time make up less than 50 percent of the population. ⁴

Age will become more of a factor as baby boomers (people like me born between 1946 and 1964) become elders. In 2020, people ages 65 and older made up 17 percent of the U.S. population, and by 2030 that number is projected to rise to 21 percent. By 2035, older adults will outnumber children. ⁵ For the first time in history, five! age generations comprise the workforce.

As the chart below shows, age and race/ethnicity demographics intersect in significant ways: younger generations are more racially and ethnically diverse than older ones.

According to the Centers for Disease and Control Prevention, there are 61 million disabled adults in the United States. This means that about one in four adults is living with a disability, comprising the largest minoritized group in the nation.⁶ To put this in perspective, the combined population of California and New York is about 61 million!

The United States is becoming more global, with 13.7 percent of the population having immigrated to the United States from another country—a fourfold increase since 1960, when immigrants made up 5.4 percent of the population. ⁷ And, rising numbers of individuals are openly identifying as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ+).

According to the Public Religion Research Institute, 70 percent of the U. S. population identifies as Christian. This number has declined by about one-third since 1996. About half of persons 20 or younger identify as Christian, compared to over 80 percent of people over 75. ⁸ Many adults have switched out of the religion in which they were raised. About 25 percent of people are religiously unaffiliated, and 5 percent identify with non-Christian religions. People between the ages of 18 and 29 are the most religiously diverse group. Historically, women have been more identified with religion than men. But that’s changing among younger generations. ⁹

Due to these and other demographic changes, along with increasing demands for equal access and opportunity plus fear of lawsuits or boycotts, difference (“diversity”) is a trending topic. Organizations of all types are applying various strategies to be competitive and to prevent charges of discrimination. Many provide diversity training programs or workshops in diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging. They implement formal programs to hire, retain, mentor, and promote members of nondominant groups.

Some organizations customize marketing and advertising to appeal to various groups (e.g., communicating in English and Spanish). Institutions of higher education fund initiatives and programs to recruit and retain faculty, staff, and students from diverse backgrounds. Many colleges and universities require students to take at least one course about “diversity” or “culture.” Has this been your experience at school or at work?

Benefits of Difference Matters

These and other initiatives can yield many rewards. Organizations that value difference as a positive element can better achieve their mission. They are more likely to attract and retain individuals (e.g. employees, students, clients, customers, etc.) from diverse backgrounds. Other benefits include increased creativity, productivity, and profitability; enhanced public relations; improved product and service quality; and higher job satisfaction. ¹⁰

Equally important (if not more so), when we value differences, we can fulfill the U.S. claim of liberty and justice for all. And we can enhance our lives. My life is enriched because I enjoy relationships with many different types of friends, students, colleagues, and clients. If we devote time to think and talk about difference (and similarity!), we will have more productive and enjoyable interactions with one another. We can reap benefits of difference matters for society, for contexts where we interact with people from diverse backgrounds, and for our own personal growth. 

To conclude, difference matters for a variety of related reasons: changing demographics, demands for equality, amplified attention to diversity, and the promise of personal and societal benefits. Considering those points, I return to my opening question: do you believe that difference matters? If so, what other reasons would you add to my list? If not, why not?

Unfortunately, numerous obstacles can block efforts to understand and value difference. These obstacles further reinforce the point that difference matters. I’ll discuss more at the M3AAWG 59th General Meeting in Brooklyn. See you then!

This blog was first published on Difference Matters on January 1, 2023.

1.      Jenkins, R. (2014). Social identity (Fourth ed.). Routledge, p. 18.

2.      Jenkins, p. 22.

3.       This blog includes excerpts from: Allen, B.J. (2023). Difference Matters: Communicating Social Identity (3rd Ed.). Waveland Press.

4.      U. S. Census Bureau. (2017). 2017 National population projections tables: Main series. https://www.census.gov/data/tables/2017/demo/popproj/2017-summary-tables.html

5.      Vespa, J. (2018). The U.S. joins other countries with large aging populations. U.S. Census Bureau. https://www.census.gov/library/stories/2018/03/graying-america.html

6.      Okoro, C. A., Hollis, N., Cyrus, A. C., & Griffin-Blake, S. (2018). Prevalence of Disabilities and Health Care Access by Disability Status and Type Among Adults—United States, 2016. CDC Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, 67.

7.      Budiman, A., Tamir, C., Mora, L., & Noe-Bustamante, L. (2020, August 20). Facts on U.S. immigrants, 2018. Pew Research Center. https://www.pewresearch.org/hispanic/2020/08/20/facts-on-u-s-immigrants/

8.      Pew Research Center (September 13, 2022). Modeling the future of religion in America. https://www.pewresearch.org/religion/2022/09/13/how-u-s-religious-composition-has-changed-in-recent-decades/

9.      Burge, R. (July, 2022). With Gen Z, women are no longer more religious than men. Christianity Today. https://www.christianitytoday.com/news/2022/july/young-women-not-more-religious-than-men-gender-gap-gen-z.html 

10.   See, for example: Dixon-Fyle, S., Dolan, K., Hunt, V., & Prince, S. (2020, May 19). Diversity wins: How inclusion matters. McKinsey & Company. https://www.mckinsey.com/featured-insights/diversity-and-inclusion/diversity-wins-how-inclusion-matters


The views expressed in DM3Z are those of the individual authors and do not necessarily reflect M3AAWG policy.