Diversity and Inclusion shouldn’t be a one-trick pony

Why is Diversity and Inclusion becoming so exclusionary?

a group of diverse individuals sat on the floor with laptops talking to each other

‘A one-trick pony’ (idiomatic, by extension) refers to a person or group noteworthy for only a single achievement, skill, or characteristic.

Here’s a thing you probably don’t know about me, horses were my first love.  I begged my parents for riding lessons from the age of three. I have a coaching qualification in equestrianism. I spent my summers at university teaching horse riding at American Summer Camps and my PhD focusses on the lived experience and career history of equestrian athletes, I was fortunate enough to do my data collection with the British Equestrian Team during the Beijing Olympics. I have several published papers and book chapters which focus on the fact that equestrian sport is one of only a few sports to be sex integrated – meaning participants don’t have to compete separately because of gender.

I’m also a fan of idioms and I love to find out what they mean. Hence the inspiration for this blog post. Whilst I believe in the strength of doing one thing and doing it well, in the context of diversity and inclusion work I have a growing concern with the growing popularity of the one-trick pony culture.  Let me explain.

I’m like a magpie when it comes to learning. I click on every shiny link, read every new article, subscribe to every mailing list, listen to every podcast… you get where this is going.  You know my motto ‘every day is a school day’ so although I have nearly 20 years experience working in the field of diversity and inclusion, I know I don’t know everything. But I am growing increasingly frustrated to find that when I’ve clicked the link to a new diversity and inclusion article, what I’m reading is content only relating to race. Or when I see an announcement on LinkedIn for a company’s new head of diversity and inclusion appointment and again every thing points to race. When did diversity and inclusion become so exclusionary?

Whilst watching a LinkedIn educational video recently on the topic of diversity and inclusion I found myself lost down the rabbit hole of comments as people complained that the person delivering the training wasn’t racially diverse enough! This has to stop.

As a qualitative researcher I understand the significance of the lived experience – it’s what I do. I know I cannot walk in someone else’s shows. As a white woman, I will never know what to feels like to be on the receiving end of racism. But diversity and inclusion isn’t just about race. Is a person of colour in a better position to talk about their experience of racial discrimination than me – absolutely. But are they the best person to talk to you about homophobia? If they’re a member of the LGBTQI+ community then sure.

Racial injustice is an incredibly important topic and yes it deserves attention, but this work shouldn’t be a popularity contest.   HeForShe was superseded by MeToo and now BlackLivesMatter.  Diversity and Inclusion work will never be effective if it continues to be a reactionary process. And of course those who identify with a particular group are the voices we need to listen to regarding any issues associated with that group. BUT being a member of a group doesn’t make you a diversity and inclusion expert. And representing one group is not diverse or inclusive.

We can’t turn a black and white picture into a multicoloured masterpiece if we only add a hint of blue. We need to recognise and include all the colours.

Focussing on one cause is an option. Of course there is strength in being a one-trick pony. Of choosing a lane and running the race. There are experts and voices we need to listen to in all the lanes. But diversity and inclusion in itself should not be a one-trick pony. We’re trying to put out individual fires when what we’re dealing with is an out of control rampant bushfire!  And here’s the thing my friend, I promise you where there’s racism, there’s sexism, homophobia, ableism…

If you want to win the race, if you want to create a Diverse, Inclusive, Value packed and Equity Driven (DIVE) Culture, you can’t simply back the one-trick pony.  Start with your WHY for D&I and let that be your sprinkler systems to extinguish all the fires of exclusion. 

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Let’s talk about that Oprah, Meghan and Harry interview

From a Diversity and Inclusion perspective

I’m going to assume you have seen the Oprah, Meghan and Harry interview, if not in it’s entirety, you will have had to have avoided all media outlets not to at least have been exposed to the headlines surrounding this now infamous interview.

You know by now that I love to pick a topical issues and use it as context to talk about different issues relating to diversity and inclusion, and boy oh boy, did this interview give me a whole heap of stuff to talk about! 

Here are my 5 take aways from the interview:

1. I was shocked that everyone else was shocked!

I was shocked at how shocked everyone seemed to be about claims of racism in the Royal Family.  The British Monarchy is approximately 1,200 years old (according to my very in-depth google search!). It’s an institution built on power and privilege. The Queens personal moto is ‘Never complain, never explain’. Do I need to go on?  Racism is absolutely institutionalised and I can assure you it is present in British culture.  My point here is racism is everywhere, to varying degrees, sure, but I cannot think of one institution or culture where there is unequivocally no racism.

2. isn’t it a little hypercritical?

I wanted to point out the hypocrisy that is often present when we discuss topics relating to diversity and inclusion.  By this I mean there is often a tendency to point fingers rather than reflect on our own behaviour. Racism is a huge issue in America and I for one felt uncomfortable listening to American reporters who work for networks who have been called out for racism, reporting on how unacceptable it is to allow such behaviour to go unpunished! So rather than simply point fingers, why don’t we take this opportunity to reflect on our own behaviour.   

3. it’s not an easy word to hear

The terms racist or racism are incredibly loaded words.  Speaking personally as a white woman still educating myself about race and racism, my first reaction when I hear these words is to back away or become defensive.  It’s not a comfortable space.  Which is why I know its a space I need to spend more time in. Because I feel small in this space, I know there’s an opportunity to grow.  I will hold my hands up and say that I now know that my own unconscious bias has resulted in racist behaviour and I am working on becoming an antiracist. Use this as an opportunity to reflect on how this language makes you feel.

4. the need for psychological safety

Here’s the thing about unconscious bias, we may be able to identify them, but we can’t fully address them unless we create psychological safety.  For me to share with you that I am aware I have been racist in my behaviour opens me up to your judgement and criticism. Can you imagine how the media fallout would have continued if the Royal Family had responded by acknowledging their racist behaviour.  There is so much judgement associated with diversity and inclusion topics and I absolutely understand why BUT if we make people feel like they have to armour up when they enter the field of discussion, how are we ever going to break down the barriers of exclusion?  

5. the power of culture

Deal and Kennedy (1982) defined organizational culture as the way things get done around here. The quote at the top of this mail was taken from the Oprah interview and gives us an insight into the culture of the firm (the term reportedly used by King George when he explained that he and the rest of the royals were “not a family, we’re a firm):

“I was trapped but I didn’t know I was trapped. Like the rest of my family are, my father and my brother, they are trapped. They don’t get to leave and I have huge compassion for that. For the family, they very much have this mentality of: ‘This is just how it is. This is how it’s meant to be. You can’t change it. We’ve all been through it.’ What was different for me was the race element, because now it wasn’t just about her. It was about what she represented”. Prince Harry

Don’t underestimate the power of culture.  If you want to create a diverse and inclusive organisation you cannot simply view D&I as a HR task or something people volunteer to be involved with on top of their day to day jobs.  You need to connect to your WHY for D&I and it has to become your companies DNA.

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How to turn on your Diversity and Inclusion superhero powers

LIVE IT.

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.

LEARN IT.

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.

WORK IT.

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.

By understanding your lived experience, I can help you work out the solution to your problem.

LIVE IT.

As a qualitative researcher I solve problems by understanding how an individual or a company brings that problem to life. Let me give you an example.

A good friend of mine, Daniel, works for a large HR company. At the start of this year his company was launching a new initiative focussed on Diversity and Inclusion (D&I). Daniel is a very likeable family guy, I’ve never seen him in a work environment but I’m sure he’s very capable at his job. He’s got a good sense of humour, a team player…he’s not the guy that will make the sexist or racist comment but he’s the guy that may (shyly) laugh along. Daniel reached out to me because he had a problem. As part of the D&I launch his company had asked all employees to complete the following sentence:

“I’m committed to inclusion because………..”

Daniels problem was he didn’t have an answer. Why? Because he wasn’t ‘committed to inclusion’, he simply was included. Through no fault of his own, he is the default square peg in the square hole. I’ve already told you that Daniel has a good sense of humour, so not only did he want me to give him the ending of the sentence, he also wanted it to be funny! I suggested “I’m committed to inclusion because…

as a straight white able bodied guy, I know I don’t have all the answers!

In my experience a lot of organisations take Daniels approach to D&I initiatives – tell me the answer (without understanding the problem). And whilst I am more than capable of doing that, the answer I give you won’t change anything unless it resinates with you, the individual or company. Issues relating to a lack of diversity are simply the symptoms. The problem will always be rooted in the organisational culture.

LEARN IT.

Not surprisingly Daniel didn’t like my first answer enough to submit it as part of the pre workshop launch of his companies inclusion initiative, although he thought I ticked the funny request. So then I presented him with the business case for inclusion. I explained to Daniel that according to CNN Money, in the U.S. the millennial and Gen Z generations are the most diverse in history: only 56% of the 87 million millennials in the U.S. are white, as compared to 72% of the 76 million members of the baby boomer generation. The U.S. population, and therefore the nation’s workforce, is becoming increasingly diverse.

In the 40 years between 1980 and 2020, the white working-age population will have declined from 83% of the nation’s total to 63% while the number of minority workers will have doubled. This means that organisations cannot simply fill up their workforce with ‘Daniels’ forever. The next generation of employees are not as complacent about the subject of D&I. They’re not looking for the smart answer that Daniel wanted to find, they want the authentic answer. According to a survey done by Glassdoor, a diverse workplace is one of the main factors potential employees take into account when considering a job. A diverse workplace was of paramount importance to minority job seekers: 72% of women (v. 62% of men), 89% of African Americans, 80% of Asians, and 70% of Latinos ranked workforce diversity as important in their job search. But this isn’t a them and us argument. According to Glassdoor’s research the next generation of Daniels employees and clients also believe a diverse workplace is important when considering where to work. This means that creating a diverse and inclusive workplace is central to attracting talented employees, and to setting your company up for success.

So we tried out the following sentence: I’m committed to inclusion because…

it’s no longer a nice to have add on, creating an inclusive organisational culture is a need to have.

For Daniel this made it to the short list.  It was an okay answer for him but still not something that resinated with him. Until he experienced difficulties in attracting talent, this scenario was still too abstract for him. He wasn’t living this version of exclusion. So then I went for the personal approach.

I asked if he thought his daughter should have the same experiences and opportunities in life as his son?  “of course” he said.  “But you do know if they both started work tomorrow doing the same job for the same company, your daughter will end up being paid less”? Daniel was now engaging with the topic on a personal level. He may not have experienced discrimination himself but now the subject was landing closer to home. This was a version of the problem he could at least imagine living through. 

WORK IT.

A few days later Daniel proudly sent me an image of himself smiling next to a poster that hung in his companies foray. On the poster was a picture of Daniel and the following quote

“I’m committed to inclusion because I believe my daughter should have the same opportunities as my son.” 

Daniel couldn’t work through the problem of inclusion because he hadn’t lived that problem. But that switched when he learnt how close to home the problem really was. Truly understanding a lived experience is the only way we can change our experience of work.