How to turn on your Diversity and Inclusion superhero powers


In order to create diverse and inclusive spaces where people feel valued we need to turn the D&I switch on and shine that light on everything we do. It can’t be an add on. It has to be the centre of. Currently 100% of the organisations I work with are starting from the point of wanting to add on. Whilst adding training sessions and policy changes help to some extent, they are really just a bandaid on top of a deep wound. We’re treating a symptom not the cause. Change won’t come from adding on, it will come from breaking down and rebuilding your culture.

As a qualitative researcher I see the world differently than many of you might. Decades of training and experience mean I can’t turn off the D&I switch. My job is to understand other peoples lived experience, so I am constantly looking for the other perspective. Think of it as a superhero power. I see, hear and feel exclusion everywhere. For example if I’m watching a presentation or webinar or if I’m in a training course I’m not just listening to you I’m analysing everything you’re doing. What images do you have in your powerpoint? Do I see myself and others in your presentation or only you? Do I hear the overuse of the male pronoun because there is the assumption that everything and everyone is male. I have sat through so many presentations on gender equality with slides full of only white able-bodied images of one gender. Or I have sat in rooms full of women talking about rooms full of men. I’m constantly shocked by how exclusionary inclusion work is.

If we want to create inclusive cultures we can’t simply pick one diversity topic, tick that box and ignore the rest. Gender equality doesn’t simply mean adding more white able bodied women to the mix. It requires you to understand sexuality, identity and race and how all these elements intersect. It means you need to look beyond equality and understand equity. Change won’t come from adding on, it will come from breaking down and rebuilding your culture.


The first thing a superhero does is identify the threat, the evil, the danger. Right now the biggest threat to the utopia of an inclusive culture, be that within your organisation or society as a whole, is exclusion. In your attempts to include women, don’t exclude women with disabilities, or women of colour, or members of the LGBTQI+ community. Under the umbrella of #blacklivesmatter we need to shelter men and women and members of the LGBTQI+ community from the continuous downpour of racism and injustice. It is not okay to only include people who have a disability when we are talking about disability and exclude them from everything else.

I know this can feel overwhelming. And I understand that each group has its own needs. So right now I’m simply asking you to turn off the exclusion switch. In my consultancy work with organisations I often use Johnson and Scholes Cultural Web Framework. At the centre of the web lies the core beliefs and values of the organisation, which is surrounded by elements which are ever-developing throughout the life cycle of an organisation: stories, symbols, power structures, organisational structures, control systems, rituals and routines.

For now let’s just focus on symbols.

Think of symbols as the things you can see. Your organisations name and logo for example. The highly successful country music group Lady Antebellum who have topped the US charts numerous times, have recently changed their name to Lady A due to the slavery connotations held by the word ‘antebellum’. The group which was formed in 2006 explained that the bands name was originally inspired after the southern ‘antebellum’ style home where they did one of their early photoshoots and reminded them of their musical influences born in the south. In light of the recent awareness created via the #blacklivesmatter movement, the band have said they have changed their name as part of their efforts to “make the necessary changes to practice antiracism”.

In sport gender nouns are only used for women. There is an underlying assumption that the default position is male unless otherwise stated. The UEFA Euros 2020 compared to the UEFA Women’s Euros 2021. To symbolise equality sport needs to either add the noun ‘men’s’ or remove the noun ‘women’s’. It’s that simple. And of course this tips over to the size of trophies and prize money (cue eye roll because of course men’s are bigger!!!) Sport is a minefield of symbolic inequality. I once spoke to a head coach of a football academy who had to go to a different building on a different site if she wanted the toilet because whoever had overseen the design of the brand new building had failed to include toilets for women!

The binary categorisation of gender is another great example of how we symbolically exclude people. If you only have male and female toilets you are excluding individuals who don’t identify as either. If you symbolically label a space as a Mother and Baby Changing Room, you are excluding fathers who need to change a nappy. And on and on it goes. I’m telling you wants you start looking these symbols are everywhere.


So what can we do to work on the symbolic exclusions that we D&I superheroes now see everywhere? Well we start by working on it. Many of us have to give presentations as part of our jobs or we sit in on presentations and presentations are full of symbols. We recently presented the results of a research project on women in leadership to UEFA and we deliberately only used images in the presentation of white men – no one in the audience noticed! If you don’t see the problem you can’t fix it. So its our job as D&I superheroes to see the problem and help others see it too. Next time you build a presentation or watch someone else’s ask yourself “Who do I see in the presentation?” and if someone is excluded ask yourself or the presenter why – why can’t you see this person in this presentation?

I said at the start of this blog that change won’t come from adding on, it will come from breaking down and rebuilding. I’m not asking you to simply add different images to a presentation. I’m asking you see who is excluded and ask the question why. Once we can build a presentation from a default position of inclusion, once we build new facilities with toilets for everyone, once we shine the light of D&I on everything we do, only then can we start to create diverse spaces where people feel valued and included.

Leave a Reply