By Aleutian Kraseninnikova, Associate of Amara Collaboration
A bit of a background would be helpful. A post caught my attention talking about a get together of a team working on diversity and inclusion in their part of an organisation. The post had a photo. What caught my eye was a discrepancy between the words and the image. The image was of a largely white all-male group. So, I had a closer look at it and decided to point that out in a comment. It was not a very obvious point. Yet, it did get attention by someone asking for a clarification, which I provided going over the photo in some details. These details included my reference to the number of men and women in the photo, the presence of someone of colour in the majority white group with a statement of absence of other differentiating factors such as sexual orientation and origins left unknown, since this was hard to identify by looking at the photo. I concluded with an acknowledgement that the conversation taking place was an encouraging sign, yet more seemed to be needed with a long way to go. (The moment I pressed send, I realised that there was more to diversity than the above stated factors, such as age, disabilities, and you can probably come up with some of your own). Since the comment got some attention, I was monitoring it to see, if there would be further engagement, to see suddenly that is was no longer be there at all. There was no feedback from anyone about any reasons why my comments were removed. The disappearance of my comments was completely unexpected, so I checked it a few times shaking my head in disbelief and laughing at the ridiculousness of it. The disbelief was shaping to be of the following inquiry for myself: if a conversation under a post about diversity and inclusion could not be diverse and inclusive, where, when and how could it be diverse and inclusive? What are the implications of that for a given company and their efforts to improve in this area? I hope this is sufficient for you, the reader, to understand the context and make your own conclusions.
There are a few things that have since been on my mind and which I would like to explore here.
- What is diversity really? Is it just a list of factors and attributes? Whilst there are many accepted definitions, I am more taken by the way it affects me, my emotions, feelings and thoughts.
- What is the value of diversity? Research is plentiful, however I am curious about my own thinking and feeling from a personal lived experience.
- What does it mean for us to be inclusive? What gets in the way and what helps us? The starting point for me are my own reflections rather than research from modern psychology or sociology.
Since I am exploring it all from my personal point of view, which is subject to my own limitations and biases, visible and hidden, I am inviting you to engage with the questions above, come up with your own questions and explore them from the way they affect you at rational as well as emotional levels. What colours my world is the fact that I am a white woman who was brought up belonging to an ethnic majority group, who was well educated and able to get a job which allowed her to work and live in different parts of the world in a privileged expat capacity. So, yes, my world is both informed and limited by these experiences. And there is a lot more to my experiences than this short summary above. To name a few, these are my experience of living through disintegration of my home country, migrating in my early twenties to a place where I was no longer an ethnic majority and did not speak the language of the land, marrying across culture and race, and more. None of it is an excuse for my ignorance, neither is it a proof of my enlightened nature. It is just simply not that straightforward. So, I invite you to dig into your experiences and share them, while respecting experiences of others, with curiosity and openness to learn and expand your world view, to grow and mature your mind.
What is Diversity
Often conversation about diversity is poorly represented by the numbers of women or people of colour around any given table at the workplace, with special attention to those numbers at the top ranks. This to me, while helpful, is rather crude indicator of diversity. The way I see diversity is more about differences, these are views and experiences we have and what we make of them, that are different to a next person. It is about opinions that are less in line with generally accepted thinking, fresh and inviting new possibilities, possibilities that have not yet been imagined and ways that have not yet been tried. It is fair to say that women fit this line of thinking. There is more to it though.
The differences are not limited to genders. How often is a lonely woman on a senior management team seen as ‘one of the guys’ very well integrated into a ‘man’s world’? It would not be particularly easy for such a woman to be able to break away from shared thinking in the group and really be different. I do speak from experience here. For far too long the way to succeed for a woman in the work place was to become more like a man, to sort of beat them at their own game. Well, perhaps it was necessary. Is it sufficient in search for diversity, though? It is precisely that there are differences between sexes, those differences need to be allowed space and voice around the table (there is more to be said about nature and nurture, perhaps for other exploration and consideration, so I will leave it from this one for now). The plain field for women would mean in this case that they are free to express their feminine qualities and be valued for them rather than dismissed and marginalised as not fitting in the predominant masculine culture. The same would apply to other marginalised groups, it is not just about women, but rather tendencies of the ‘majority’ group to shape and mould others in their image, or discard them as insignificant. And since the ‘majority’ controls the narrative, it becomes a culture. And it is precisely the culture that is being worked on to change.
What is a diversity really? To me, it is our ability to hold space for differences in our world without our need to change the other to be more like us, have only people we agree with or those who agree with us to be our friends, colleagues, neighbours, etc. It is breaking away from our echo-chambers rather than retreating into them at our first encounter with anything different. It is easier said than done. I am as guilty as anyone removing people whose opinions I do not like from my friends list on social media, switching off from a conversation or engagement that is challenging my world view, or denying that anything is wrong with my world view by putting blame onto the other. It does not mean though that I cannot and should not do better. And I believe we all can and should do better, educating ourselves, engaging across the differences, staying in conversations rather than working away from them. Yes, somethings are not to be tolerated, yet I can only say so, if I have given it attention and consideration rather than simply reacting to something that gives offence real or perceived. And it is something we can get better at by bringing more awareness to our own beliefs and assumptions, testing our biases, exploring and expanding our minds, consciously making an effort to grow and develop our way of thinking and being. Here is what I think about it. What are your views? Are you ready to really embrace diversity for yourself?
The Value of Diversity
I guess you may ask yourself why bother, wondering what the fuss is all about. Perhaps you have a strong view, having it all figured out, perhaps you have your own questions. Whatever it is, it is for you to answer those questions or challenge your convictions. What I am about to do is to express mine here for your consideration and engagement with the topic on this and other forums. And I am coming at it with a conviction of my own – diversity is of a great value, not only at the work place, but in all walks of life. Hers is why.
There is a lot of talk about #innovation all around. New ways of doing things, new ways of being, new ways of living, new ways of working, etc., etc. And if I think about innovators, what strikes me is the fact that they are different, with views and opinions outside of the norms and conventions of their time, often going against the grain, often at great personal cost. Yet, if we are trying to encourage innovation, would it not be more conductive to it to allow those differences and even encourage them, rather than stifle them? Does an expression of a difference have to be ‘at great personal cost’? Can we not all be more welcoming of differences? I know my answers are: ‘it would’, ‘no’ and ‘we can’ to the above questions. What are yours?
The way I understand such a focus on innovation is that we are finding ourselves in an environment of unprecedented #complexity. The speed of it, the unexpected nature of the ever-shifting direction. All of it and more constantly challenges us and exposes our ‘old ways’ as no longer supportive of the environment we find ourselves in. And it is scary and unsettling. What are we to do to be ready to meet the challenges, ride the wave of the change, and move forward better informed? To me diversity in a lot of ways is the answer. To be able to break away from a homogeneous thinking and being and see new possibilities, directions and solutions, diversity becomes our friend. If we can allow ourselves to be wrong, get curious about the differences, rather than see them as a threat, we can unlock and open up our minds to new levels of internal complexity which would meet the external complexity, embrace it, ride it moving forward while becoming wiser.
There is also the issue of #fairness. Often diversity and equality go hand-in-hand. We still live in a society where often what one can achieve, or even dream about is limited, hindered, that much harder, or impossible because of the factors that make up diversity. It is that much harder for a woman in the man’s world of work to succeed; for a person of colour or a minority ethnicity to feel safe and seen for a person rather than a threat or a nuisance; for a different sexual orientation to be expressed freely with all the love and affection for one another; for an older person to feel like they belong in the modern world obsessed with youthful energy and appearance. These are just a few examples that come to my mind, it is much more varied, much more intermingled, and both personal and systemic. Do we really want the world around us to be this harsh and unwelcoming? I would rather live in the world where everyone has opportunities to express their unique talents and fulfil their potential regardless, knowing that society, organisations, neighbourhoods would support them in these aspirations without having any prejudgement about their abilities based on the fact that they are different to me. Do we have to deny others to feel good about ourselves? Do we need to feel threatened that something of ours would be taken away for another to have their own ‘piece of happiness’? I believe we do not.
Here are few things that come to mind when thinking about the value of diversity. I am ready to learn and hold my opinions lightly, open to the influences of others and welcome them. Do you?
What It Means to be Inclusive
In some ways it means capitalising on the value of diversity. The world all around us is very diverse, yet we have found a way to pretend as if it is not. We have constructed barriers, justified them, convinced ourselves it is right to have them, it is our right to have them. We have gone into a great length to exclude rather than include.
Why have we done all we can to exclude and continue to do so? I think it is difficult to deal with differences, it is for me. I would rather not be challenged, not have my shortcomings pointed out, not reminded of my deficiencies, and not shaken to my core. I would rather be surrounded by those who would make me feel good about myself. Or would I? At the gut level, yes, it is true about me. There is nothing wrong with finding comfort in the company of like-minded people.
Yet, I would also rather be challenged and pointed to something I have not been able to see, shown new things and ways, gone places I did not know existed both literally and metaphorically. For that I need people around me who are different, who have lived different lives, had different experiences, see things I cannot, or see them in ways not yet available to me. And it does not mean we have to agree all the time, or it is I who needs to change all the time. It is simply to be able to allow spaces safe enough for us all to be free to express our views; safe enough to have those views to be considered; safe enough to have them challenged; safe enough to allow those challenges to move us, helping us to clarify our positions, or change them. Inclusion is that space. It is an invitation for differences to come forward and express themselves knowing they will not be dismissed out of hand.
Perhaps this is why I have been moved to get involved in the conversation as well as write this reflection. I need this space for myself. I want it for others. I am committed to support it the best I can in everything I do. And I also know I will struggle and tumble and pick myself up and do better next time. I am just a human after all, flaws and all. And as ‘just a human’ I am capable of doing good. It is all about making this place, this world a little better as compared to how I have found it when I got here. What would make it worth your while to embrace diversity and be inclusive of it?
PS: the post that started it all is no longer a post. It has quietly disappeared from existence on the social media. I do not know what has prompted it, since there has been no explanation. So, there was hardly any engagement from the company. I have my speculations, but that is beside the point. The point is, I do find it disappointing. If we cannot have a conversation about diversity and inclusion under the post about it, where, when and how can we have it? And if there is no conversation, a truly diverse and inclusive conversation taking place, what chance to we have to actually make a difference? I hope this post can be such a place and I hope to see more of other places supporting this conversation and the change.