Diversity and Inclusion in the Workplace

Photograph of Jenefer Livings, Founder of Silk Helix Ltd
12 August 2022
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Diversity is about recognising, acknowledging and appreciating difference and the benefits that those from a range of backgrounds can bring. Inclusion is where those differences are valued and everyone feels they belong without feeling like they must conform.

As children, many of us would have heard the line “treat others as you wish to be treated” - when we value diversity and are inclusive we treat others as they wish to be treated and consider the impact on and view of others.

Let’s say we organise a team building activity and I think it’ll be a good icebreaker to ask everyone to bring in a photo of themselves as a toddler. I may be perfectly happy with this type of activity, think it’s fun and I am happy to share and discuss my photo. Asking everyone to do the same assumes everyone thinks like me and is happy with the activity. If I stop and think about others and their positions I start to realise there are many reasons people may not want to or be able to show photos of their childhood, including photos lost or damaged in a traumatic event like a fire, no longer living with or in contact with parents, photos represent their sex assigned at birth, to name just a few. The activity makes the assumption that a team who knows each other well work better together and that knowing each other well includes knowing what we looked like as children. However, given the multiple ways it potentially excludes people it’s not really serving its purpose in team building. Yes, in a team we want people to be included as their authentic selves, but, this is the self they are comfortable with.

As children we are taught to treat others as we would like to be treated as a way of learning to be kind, it’s simplistic and depending on the age of the child enables them to process what it means to be kind. However, real kindness comes in considering the impact of that behaviour on others.

When we value diversity and focus on inclusion, we value the difference people bring and uniqueness. When we focus on equality and compliance with legislation the outcome is often a ‘one size fits all’ approach. Policies and practices applied “fairly” and “equally” to all, we focus on equality meaning to treat everyone the same. The problem with this comes when applying a policy or practice to everyone in the same way produces different outcomes. It can be difficult without diversity in the decision making process to even see the different outcomes from a ‘one size fits all’ approach, let alone produce an inclusive solution.

As a current, real and deadly example, PPE for NHS staff. The same PPE is provided to all, much of it “one size fits all”, the policy of what to wear and when, is applied to all, the provision of PPE is applied equally. However, the outcome of the policy is far from equal, NHS trusts did not analyse the fit of PPE. One size does not fit all and when the PPE does not fit properly it is less effective. As a result, deaths of female NHS workers, particularly during the pandemic, outnumbered men significantly. Trying to understand every individual point of view and life experience so that we can make decisions that reflect positively is impossible. It is diversity in the people making the decisions that is necessary to improve the outcomes of those decisions.

The film ‘Hidden Figures’, (if you’ve not watched it I do recommend it), tells the true story of three women all very intelligent maths brains who worked for NASA in the 1950’s. Katherine Goble is working as a Human Computer as NASA when she is promoted to a division staffed by all white male mathematicians. At this time segregation was still a major part of American society, including separate toilets. Katherine is required to walk half a mile to another building to use the “coloured rest rooms”. This goes unnoticed until Katherine’s boss wonders where she disappears to each day, at which point he takes a hammer, smashes down the sign on the “coloured restrooms” and declares the toilets are no longer segregated. Katherine’s segregation was hidden, it wasn’t until it started to affect her boss that he even noticed it, despite it being done so openly. We so often don’t question what is our norm, we don’t consider life in someone else’s shoes. We don’t notice what doesn’t affect us. Discrimination is not always so open, much is hidden in the unconcious bias that is within us all as individuals and in the design of society.

Not only does this example highlight what we don’t see but also what we still don’t record. Many decisions are made and then not challenged because data is not broken down, decisions will be made based on data “representing” society as a whole yet if we broke that data down by gender, race or class for example we would see that not everyone is represented. Even when it is collected, the data is even less likely to consider multiple identities, for example a woman of colour - she may be listed in data about her gender or data about her race but the impact on her may be because she is both female and of colour. Only in 2010 with the Equality Act did it become possible to bring a claim based on multiple identities, prior to this a claim could only be made on the basis of race or gender (as an example), making it much harder in many cases to prove discrimination.

Discrimination is systemic in the design and history of society, whilst it may feel overwhelming to fix it all, it’s worth remembering that small steps start big changes. Consider what you can do to make your organisation, your workplace, your team more inclusive.

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