The ‘diversity and inclusion’ industry has been around for more than 20 years, but the dial isn’t really shifting. We’re more than 50 years from the equality acts, so why does it feel like we’ve hardly moved?
Organisations want to become more diverse, consumer brands want to reflect diversity better and membership organisations – from political parties to the National Trust – struggle to reflect the broader ‘membership’ of the country or the people they exist to serve.
My guess is that part of the reason that these organisations are struggling is because their sense of entitlement – or privilege if you like – is getting in the way of clear headed thinking on the issue. They haven’t adequately asked – never mind answered – what is in their ‘offer’ to less well represented groups? Why should these under-represented groups want to join that employer, that membership organisation or buy that company’s products? ‘To help them to become more diverse’ isn’t really a very good answer, and completely neglects the fact that in the twenty first century, groups ‘excluded’ from the more twentieth-century-feeling mainstream can organise themselves, create their own networks and businesses. Being seen as an instrument that exists in pursuit of someone else’s need to appear good, or their fixation on the (often mis-stated) greater productivity or profitability of a more diverse workforce, isn’t that attractive a prospect.
My mental picture of a more diverse, and more inclusive, society and organisations is a very broad, bumpy path. It has poorly defined edges and wide scope for meandering. Some people are bumping into each other, negotiating their route, changing direction, but there’s a general – albeit inefficient – drift towards a destination. And ultimately, nearly everyone gets there.
Contemporary Britain feels more like the narrow pavements of London Bridge during commuter hours. High sided, bordered, narrow. A predominantly above average height, above averagely white and male, highly focused, briefcase-pointing, swarm. Except, unlike at the other side of the Bridge, where the paths branch out and widen, there’s a narrow and fixed point at the end. And only a few make it.
So what’s the answer, how to become genuinely more diverse and more inclusive? Here’s some advice for the privileged or over represented – particularly those who resent (perhaps understandably) their inclusion in the pale, stale, (tall and) male briefcase-wielding stereotype:
- Be quiet: Make space for others to speak. The office or the clubhouse are your natural environments, it may not occur to you that others feel less at home. Empathise with that discomfort, reflect on what it’s like to feel that your voice isn’t welcome, and pipe down for a while. Be the second to last to speak, and never, ever mansplain*. (*and women, watch out for the offensive/defensive response to mansplaining – womansplaining – refusing to stop speaking just to annoy a mansplainer – it’s funny for a while but they don’t really notice – they’re probably still talking – so you’re just wasting your energy).
- Get out of the way – literally and metaphorically. For the literal bit, just observe pedestrian traffic on a busy high street (or on London Bridge in commuter time). See who’s walking – head above the majority – in a straight line – and who’s ducking and weaving out of the way. If you find yourself resting your Financial Times on a woman’s head on the Northern Line (yes, this has happened to me!) or, with colleagues, kettling a young female graduate trainee at a work event, or in the corner of a bar, you’re probably guilty of taking up too much space in the world. More metaphorically, take inspiration from Sophie Walker’s resignation from the leadership of the Women’s Equality Party. Her open acknowledgement of her frustration with her own lack of progress in broadening her constituency was a breath of fresh air.
- Read.think.repeat – it’s annoying, a bit daft and even somewhat fetishising to ask the under-represented ‘what they want to happen’ for things to change – even more so to expect them (alone) to be the agents of this change. (‘You want to be included? Go on a training course to learn to ‘lean in…’ or become our ‘diversity champion…’’ Oh crikey.) We’ve all a responsibility to become more culturally and emotionally intelligent, to accept diversity as a fact of life and to foster inclusion because it’s the right thing to do. My top three suggestions: Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge, Your Silence Will Not Protect You by Audre Lorde and Inglorious Empire by Shashi Tharoor. It’s not other people’s job to educate you, it’s your job to educate yourself.
The broad, bumpy path’s good to be on. Its highway code is under development and you don’t get to travel only on your terms. But that could be the joy of the journey. Be quiet, get out of the way and read.think.repeat.
Human Change Agent