Diversity and inclusion are not just buzzwords

Before I started working for a small consulting firm, I completed an MA in Gender Studies. The course was a fantastic experience which was particularly supportive of those continuing in academia. Upon leaving the bubble, I was very critical of systems and structures without much of an idea of how to continue within them whilst holding those criticisms. I was much more aware of my own privilege as a white, middle class, able-bodied, cisgender woman, but unsure about how to utilise that without causing more harm. Through the MA programme, as well as the experience I have gained in the three years since graduating, I have gathered some things I think are important when approaching diversity and inclusion. I mostly refer to organisations, but I think the points I make can be related to non-work contexts.

Diversity is a word that is used a lot, often meaning quite different things. I hear people say about a group “They have a broad diversity of experience,” often referring to their educational background and life experience. Someone might look at a group who they think look quite homogenous and say: “Wow, there isn’t much diversity in that group.” Here they are referring to the things they think they can see such as race, ethnicity, gender expression, age, physical abilities, etc. Then there are other aspects of someone’s identity, such as sexual orientation, gender identity, religious beliefs, socio-economic status and ideologies, which can be less obvious.

I also hear and read different reasons for diversity and inclusion being important to people, which I broadly see fitting into three themes:

  • One is the ‘financial’ argument. There is evidence pointing towards organisations being more profitable if they employ a more diverse workforce. People suggest that important perspectives are less likely to be missed and that mistakes are less likely to be made when diversity is prioritised, ultimately meaning that organisations are more likely to continue existing.
  • The other is the ‘realistic’ motivation. In our world, we have all of these different identities, as mentioned above, so some argue that this should be reflected in organisations through representation. They say that it doesn’t make sense for a group of people who are fairly similar in many ways to run an organisation in a world where people vary so much.
  • The third is the “ethical’ or “moral” reason. Many people have been marginalised and experienced prejudice, so the argument follows that we need to work against that as much as possible in the fight for equality.

Who is expected to be responsible for diversity and inclusion?

If we are looking at diversity and inclusion in organisations, it is important that everyone is involved and included, regardless of hierarchy or role. One person or a small team in an organisation should not be solely responsible for ‘the diversity initiative’. Everyone should be learning about and working on this. 

Do you think everyone should try to be more similar? Are you sure?

People who talk about these topics are often regarded as being sensitive or ‘politically correct’ (as if these are negative attributes). However, learning about diversity is about decentering the focus on particular groups of people who typically hold more privilege and therefore power, such as white, middle class, able-bodied, cisgender men and women.  Systems work in their favour before they even lift a finger. I think this decentering happens when you have a truly diverse group of people working together, where people don’t need to feel overly cautious about sharing different aspects of their identity or lived experience, nor are they discriminated against based on their perceived identities. 

The goals of greater diversity and inclusion should not be to make people resemble the group ‘at the centre’ or to make them conform to the prevailing cultural norm. For example, in some organisations, women might be encouraged to adopt traits which are seen as masculine (for example assertiveness) rather than feminine. Furthermore, a woman might adopt a trait seen as masculine and then be criticised for it – have you ever heard of a bossy man? No – he would be considered assertive or direct! A trans woman might be expected to dress in a feminine way to fit in with the cultural expectations of women, but many trans women are not comfortable with this. A non-native English speaker might be encouraged to minimise their accent, which might impact their professional development. It is not diversity nor inclusion if we try and make everyone the same or if we avoid critically looking at the cultural and social norms that we valorise, consciously and subconsciously.

What does diversity mean to you? Is it only about gender? 

When thinking about these topics, my focus has often been on race and gender, but I have realised that I can ignore many other experiences. My colleague Sharon Amesu described it as finding out what might be keeping people from being able to show up fully and participate. For instance, I recently got some feedback from a colleague that we had been scheduling video calls at times when it was hard to join as they needed to be providing childcare. I don’t have kids and I hadn’t really thought about it. What else might I/we be missing? You won’t know if you don’t listen to people.

The language of “tolerance” is sometimes used when discussing diversity and inclusion. Do you like the idea of someone only tolerating your existence? I think we should celebrate our differences rather than tolerate or feign blindness towards those considered the “other”. Some people, for example, would say: “I don’t see colour”. Bullshit! My colleague said to me “I don’t want that – I want people to see me as a Black woman!” It is not a negative thing to notice or even speak about the differences between us: the important thing is how we respond to difference.

Representation is hugely important – “you can’t be what you can’t see”. You can read of the impact that seeing women or POC leaders on TV has had on these communities – how seeing themselves represented opened up possibilities for them. I think that hiring people from underrepresented groups is a great idea, but only when people understand this must be done because of a belief that everyone benefits from equality and diversity.

What are your fears and motivations?

I don’t want us to do this because of compliance laws or ticking boxes, as this is unhelpful and could be detrimental. We could, for example, hire a female CEO who doesn’t like employing women (think Margaret Thatcher). Or we could hire a person of colour who is racist towards another minority group. If people truly want change to take place, these initiatives must be more than tokenism. They should be well-thought-out. 

People have different fears about diversity and inclusion. Some people are wanting to protect the advantages and privileges they hold – to maintain the status quo. For others, it can be a genuine risk to bring these issues up because of the fear of the negative consequences for them. Some people argue that these conversations are too sensitive and therefore weak. However, these conversations help the workplace become stronger, in that people can be vulnerable and put their hands up when they have made mistakes and develop their critical thinking.

How do you approach difficult conversations?

It can feel very difficult to challenge others about something they have said or done, which you might consider harmful. If you have been challenged, you might think you have been judged as a bad person and want to retreat or be defensive. Perhaps a problem here is my use of the word ‘challenge’ – it could be more useful to enquire into something someone has said or done. Though, again, I am also cautious about asking people to take on the responsibility of educating others. Perhaps if we start from an acceptance that we hold prejudice within unequal structures, then we could move forward more constructively, rather than focusing on feedback as an eternal judgment of your character. 

We all need to have ways to raise each other’s awareness to things we can learn from. Seemingly harmless little comments and jokes, sometimes called microaggressions, take place all the time. This article is useful for describing ways they can show up. How do you deal with them when they happen, assuming you notice? A personal example: I was recently out for dinner and overheard someone in our group as describing something negatively as “gay”. I am sorry to say that I didn’t say anything. I think I was worried about causing a scene or seeming overly sensitive, which has kept me quiet many times. Have you experienced this, in or out of work? What keeps you quiet – do you think there is risk involved? When would you speak up? Do you leave it to other people to say something? These are questions that I ponder when I look at the times I have spoken up and when I have not.

Are you actively learning about these topics?

Often, the responsibility of learning and educating others about inclusion and diversity falls on those who are most affected by it, which must lead to a hell of a lot of frustration. Imagine having to constantly re-educate people about the same things, again and again. If you are reading this and thinking that these issues don’t affect you directly, be an ally and take responsibility for educating yourself and others. Mistakes are fine, but it is how we deal with them that is the most important thing. Do we spend time to reflect and learn from them or do we keep making them over and over? Do we blame someone else or minimise our responsibility?

Learn about yourself, your privilege, prejudices, your assumptions and the stereotypes you hold. Everyone has them. It is easy to label someone else as racist whilst ignoring all the ways you have benefited from a racist system. You can build awareness of your own privilege and how intersectionality works. Fearless Futures, an organisation I LOVE and want to learn as much as possible from, run exercises in their workshop which really get you thinking about the ways you benefit and disadvantage, based on different aspects of your identity, experience and privilege. Look to other people to find out who is doing cool stuff! You don’t need to figure all of this stuff out alone (and you wouldn’t really be able to anyway, following the idea that we can do more with a diverse group of people).

Are you supporting others in learning?

Have you ever looked down on someone for not knowing something, which you yourself have only recently learnt? I often encounter people (including myself) on high-horses about their knowledge about these topics. For example, I recently learnt that the word “jip” as in “my brother is giving me jip” (being a pain) is a derogatory word coming from “gypsy”. So, I have decided I won’t use that word any more (not that it was very often in my vocabulary!) What I want to now avoid doing is judging others for using this word. However, I would like to find ways to speak to people about it if I do hear it. 

Another example I have experienced is adult women being called “girls”, which I find patronising, especially coming from older men, due to the power imbalances that exist. In this situation, despite the topic being raised, the person continued to say it to me and other women in the organisation. Why? I think they felt judged and as though it wasn’t a worth mentioning because they had good intentions. The kinds of interactions can seem small but fit into a bigger picture. Are there things in your organisation that hold people back from speaking up? Have they tried and been ignored? 

I have really struggled to write this piece and then actually share it. I worry about missing something important, perhaps relating to my privilege or ignorance. I don’t like it when people say “Oh well my intentions were good” and expect people to shoulder more pain and then also educate them. With that in mind, I want to give it a go. I want to enter into conversations with people and work with others around these topics. I am thinking about setting up a group of people who meet virtually on a regular basis, in order to share experiences and work on supporting your place of work or study. If you’re interested, please drop a line!

I got a lot of help with this blog. Thank you to Guilherme, Jorinde, Rodrigo and Sebastian (who also came up with the title) for working with me on this.

If you would be interested in a conversation around this topic, get in contact with me here.