“You? Really?” said a senior member of the team at an organisation where I had a recent gig. He was genuinely shocked – practically opened-mouthed – at something I had told him.
Did I reveal some weird sexual fetish or membership of an unsavoury political party? Had I declared myself the world’s biggest Little Mix fan or the 1998 national power lifting champion?
No. What stunned him was the fact that I was a graduate of the London School of Economics.
He clearly found it unbelievable someone like me (a black girl from a North London comprehensive school) could have gone there. It wasn’t the first time people have made assumptions about me based on the package I come in. I am used to it, but that doesn’t mean it’s OK.
Diversity is rightly an important issue and I am delighted that increasing numbers of organisations are taking it seriously and developing strategies to make themselves more diverse. But diversity on its own is not enough.
It doesn’t matter how many people of colour, women, LGBTQ+ people or disabled people you recruit; if you don’t create an environment in which they feel welcome, you are not going to reap the benefits of that diversity of perspective. And they are less likely to stay.
Human beings need to feel a sense of belonging in order to thrive. We do well when we feel we are understood and feel safe. In the workplace, this translates into feeling like we can be our authentic selves without being judged other than on the quality of our work.
It means the dominate culture has to make room for other perspectives. I don’t know about you, but I have frequently heard people say things like “she won’t last long, she’s not a [insert name of organisation] person”.
Feeling like we belong helps to make people feel safe psychologically. The workplaces that do best are ones in which speaking up, asking questions and challenging the norms are not just tolerated but actively encouraged.
As a friend put it, the difference between diversity and inclusion is being invited to the party and having a blast at the party.
How many of us have worked in organisations where what the CEO said went without question? I know a fair few where some pretty stupid ideas have been pursued because any questioning of the boss was simply not possible if you wanted to keep your job.
One of the best leaders I ever worked for was always open to challenge. He would ask me what I thought, and I realised pretty quickly that he was asking not for the sake of it but because he really wanted to know. If I disagreed, I would tell him and explain why. Sometimes he changed his mind, sometimes he didn’t.
I was careful about expressing my views to him at the right moment and in the right environment – publicly undermining someone is never going to strengthen your case. But the point was that I felt safe to put forward a contrary view.
In fact I am pretty sure he deliberately recruited people around him who would disagree with him, who would tell him he was wrong, not least so that when they were enthusiastic about something he knew it was genuine. It was one of the most inclusive places I have ever worked, although, ironically, not particularly diverse – overwhelmingly white, male and posh – but one where I felt difference was acknowledged and seen as a positive thing.
I am not saying it is easy to create inclusive workplace cultures, but neither is it impossible. Indeed, it is something that people in our sector ought to be better equipped than others to do. It is about living your values and valuing others, about getting under the skin of other people, being genuinely curious about what makes them tick.
It is something you have to work at, to train your staff in, to think about all the time. It means creating a culture in which, when someone asks me about my heritage, I feel like they are asking because they are genuinely interested in me and aren’t going to treat me unfavourably because of my response. And it is OK to ask questions, to show an interest.
If you are not sure, ask yourself if you would ask any other colleague the same question. It is absolutely to fine to ask an Asian colleague what they were up to at the weekend, but it isn’t fine to ask them if their marriage was arranged. In the end it is all about showing respect for and being genuinely interested in your colleagues.
As a friend put it, the difference between diversity and inclusion is being invited to the party and having a blast at the party. Diverse organisations will invite people like me but if that organisation is not inclusive I will not feel able to dance, eat and drink as much as I want to.
I think I only want to go to inclusive parties from now on.