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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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.

Is it just me or is anyone else desperate to paint their face blue and run through the streets shouting FREEDOM in a dodgy Scottish accent?

LIVE IT.

I’m writing this blog in the midst of Covid-19. A time when our freedom feels somewhat limited. In The Netherlands, as I’m sure is happening around the world right now, we receive regular updates from the government informing us about what we can and can’t do, who we can see, how we can interact with them, what behaviour is appropriate….for me this is a new reality. Apart from my parents telling me what to do as a child, I have never felt this level of control before. Of course I am aware that social structures control my behaviour. Whilst I would consider myself to be a strong independent woman, I don’t have a rebellious side. I happily follow the vast majority of rules in my immediate society. I send my children to school, I pay taxes, I pay attention to speed limits… and yet this level of control is a new experience for me.

Pre Covid-19 I took my freedom for granted. I spent the majority of my 20s travelling the world, living out of a backpack. I have had access to education and healthcare. I have played sports, socialised with friends. I married the love of my life and we have three beautiful children. No one told me I couldn’t do any of those things. To me that lack of control is freedom. Hopefully many of you reading this post will have experienced similar levels of freedom, but I know for many, the amount of freedom you have to make choices and live your life has nothing to do with Covid-19 but has everything to do with ignorance and prejudice.

LEARN IT.

Did you know that May 17th is International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia or IDAHOBIT for short? I didn’t know this until recently. The goals of IDAHOBIT are to raise awareness of violence, discrimination and repression of LGBT communities and stimulate interest in LGBT rights work worldwide. I’m rubbish at dates, I can barely remember birthdays of the people I love the most! But when I started to look into IDAHOBIT and why they chose this date, the significance left such an impression on me I know I won’t be forgetting May 17th any time soon.

I had no idea that on May 17th 1990 – that’s just 30 years ago – the World Health Organisation decided to remove homosexuality from the International Classification of Diseases list. As a qualitative researcher and writer, words mean everything to me, but that statement left me lost for words.

I had no idea that within my lifetime homosexuality had been classified as a disease in the same way Covid-19 is now! And just to clarify, the World Health Organisation defines a disease as ‘a particular abnormal condition that negatively affects the structure of function of all or part of an organism’. Which means that if I had fallen in love with a woman in 1998 rather than a man in 2008, I would have been labelled as having a disease. According to ‘experts’ my body would have been riddled with an illness that would have prevented it from functioning! Can we take a moment to acknowledge how that label would have affected my freedom.

WORK IT.

Whilst homosexuality is thankfully no longer classified as a disease, it unfortunately remains, for many, something they want to control, which heartbreakingly affects so many peoples freedom. Freedom to access education, healthcare, sport, workplaces. Freedom to marry and have a family. Freedom to be safe.

Covid-19 has given us new labels, ‘self isolating’ and ‘social distancing’, new restrictions on our physical freedom and a new sense of normal. As I am living through this experience right now, this is what I’m learning. I’m learning that having my freedom restricted sucks. I want to paint my face with blue stripes and run out of my house shouting FREEDOM in a dodgy Scottish accent channelling Mel Gibson at his finest. But I don’t want the freedom to be limited to only men in skirts! I don’t want to emerge from this pandemic to find prejudices still make people feel isolated. I don’t want our places of work to feel like war zones. And I don’t want to have to navigate barriers in society that continue to keep people distanced from one another. I want our new normal to be a place where everyone can experience the freedom to be themselves.

Let’s learn from others lived experiences and work together to make our new normal a place where freedom thrives. So let me start by asking you this simple yet thought provoking question, what does freedom mean to you?

Hi I’m Donna….

I’m a 40 something year old Brit, married to a Dutch guy who I met on holiday 100 years ago, a real life Love Island success story. We live in Holland with our three children, two boys and a girl, all under the age of 10. Oh and we have a cat called Buddy who I’m allergic to but love nonetheless.

I have a BSc first class honours degree and an MBA. I completed my PhD whilst working full time, moving countries and having three children. I was having rather strong Braxton Hicks during my viva and travelled to another country to attend my graduation ceremony with a 6 week old baby (thank heavens for the large black gown!).

I’ve worked hard to create a successful career in academia. I have a theoretical grounding in both sociology and business and my area of expertise is equality. I believe my daughter should have the same experience in life as her brothers. But I am acutely aware that the systems that surround us all do not facilitate equality. My children will experience schooling systems and sporting spaces and work environments that will not treat them as equals and this is something I want to change.

I facilitate change through working with these systems. Through a simple framework of Live it – Learn it – Work it, I conduct qualitative research to understand our lived experiences of these systems, so we can learn how to evolve and create cultures that work.

I blog because as a qualitative researcher I know that words matter. And because I know not everyone reads the academic journal articles or book chapters I write, so this is another way of sharing my work and hopefully creating impact. I’ll be blogging about anything and everything to do with equality. In October I’m launching my Live it. Learn it. Work it. podcast. So please get in touch if equality is something you’re interested in, if you have stories to share or topics you would like me to include. I’m new to blogging and podcasting so please be gentle with me! I’ll make mistakes and hopefully improve and inevitably f-up along the way but that’s life right, and life is for living, learning and working things out.