Diversity: it’s not just a black and white issue

When the word “diversity” is mentioned, most people immediately think of race. Since the need to challenge racism and improve opportunities for people of colour has been highlighted by recent events, that issue is front of mind for a lot of businesses right now – and about time too.

Other people might think about gender, and tackling the huge inequalities in pay and progression that exist between men and women. Or maybe you think about disability and making the world more accessible. All of these are incredibly important issues, and there’s no doubt that most of us will be judged initially and most powerfully by the most visible characteristics that differentiate us from others. I can hide certain things about myself that might cause people to be unconsciously prejudiced against me, but I can’t hide the fact that I’m a woman. A black woman in a wheelchair is going to have a number of judgments made about her before she has a chance to show anything about who she really is. It’s vital that employers and recruiters are aware of how these visible differences can impact someone’s opportunities.

But there are a number of diversity issues that aren’t visible, and aren’t obvious. They might not be causing direct prejudices, but can still be holding back a person’s potential. And why should anyone feel they have to hide anything about themselves? It’s only by feeling able to be our full selves that we are able to contribute our best.

So let’s take a look at some of the elements of diversity that you might have overlooked.

Hidden disabilities

When we talk about people with disabilities and accessibility in the workplace, the immediate picture in most people’s minds is of a person in a wheelchair. But that image represents a small minority of people with disabilities. A wide variety of disabilities aren’t visible, and you might be surprised by how many people you encounter that have a disability that you’re not even aware of. An American study found that only 39% of employees with a disability had disclosed it to their manager – and if you think the situation is better in the UK, you’re kidding yourself. Considering that the TUC found that one in three people with disabilities had been the target of “jokes” or harassment at work, you can understand why many people would prefer to keep that fact to themselves if possible.

I’ve spent so long hiding my disability that I often forget I’ve got one! But I am partially deaf. However, I learned at an early age that it would be better for my progression, reputation and general fitting in to just not mention it. I got pretty adept at lip reading and developed a range of coping mechanisms to make sure that I could stay informed and follow what was going on without giving anything away. But who knows what support I missed out on, and how much more effective and successful I might have been able to be if I’d felt comfortable to access that support? If your staff don’t feel able to tell you where they have issues, their productivity and results might be inhibited. And if they don’t feel able to tell you about something like that, what else don’t they feel able to talk to you about?

Socioeconomics

Like it or not, the “old boys’ network” is still a considerable force in the world of business. 20 out of 55 UK Prime Ministers have been to Eton. Does Eton just generate a particularly superior breed of political mind? Erm, I’m going to say no. No one school, however brilliant, can be responsible for generating 36% of the country’s top talent. It’s simply that the people at the top are automatically more likely to pass opportunities down to people who remind them of themselves and come from similar backgrounds.

People from more privileged backgrounds are more likely to have access to professional networks, mentors and connections that help them to progress in their careers. The media and pervasive stereotypes have trained us all to make certain assumptions based on someone’s accent or style of clothing. Certain industries expect new entrants to spend a long time working for free as an intern before they can achieve a paid job, and that makes those roles simply inaccessible to many people.

Now that a university education costs £9,000 per year, and the average student will graduate with £40,000 worth of debt, people without large reserves of family financial support will have to think long and hard about whether that’s a burden they want to take on. When you say on your job ad that a degree is a requirement, is that because someone really needs a degree to do that job, or are you needlessly stripping a vast amount of talented and motivated people from your potential talent pool?

Personality types

People think and behave in different ways – that should be obvious, yet a lot of traditional work culture still expects conformity to a particular abstract standard. Yet when you adapt and open your workplace to different ways of thinking, you allow for a greater range of skills, abilities and perspectives to contribute to your business.

Neurodiversity is a term that is sometimes used specifically to refer to people on the autism spectrum, but can also be used to talk more broadly about people with differences in a variety of mental functions, including those with ADHD, depression, anxiety and dyslexia, to name but a few. In short, when we talk about neurodiversity, we’re acknowledging that people’s brains work in very different ways.

I worked for a company once that made every new employee take the Myers-Briggs personality test as soon as they joined. It might sound a little Orwellian, but it was a useful tool to understand how I and all of my colleagues thought, communicated and processed information. The problem was, it resulted in a lot of people saying things like “well, I’m an ISTJ so that’s just the way I do things” and expecting everyone else to deal with it. I think the idea behind using the tests was to help us all understand how we could best adapt our own approaches to the people around us, rather than to give us all an excuse to act however we wanted, but they gave us no tools to do so. These kinds of tests are useful for understanding different personality types if you follow it up with guidance on how to use that information – how can your team use the knowledge they’ve gained to better communicate and collaborate with one another? How can they adapt to different situations? How can they interpret one another more effectively? How can they get the best out of themselves and each other? Without that, you’re simply giving them a label to hide behind.

Parents

54,000 women lose their jobs in the UK every year because of maternity discrimination. Employers often, whether they are aware of it or not, jump to the conclusion that women won’t be able or willing to continue in their role or progress any further once they start a family. This issue has been exacerbated by the current crisis, as mothers are 47% more likely to lose their jobs due to the impact of coronavirus.

You frequently hear people ask women how they will juggle parenthood with their job, but you rarely hear men asked the same question. That’s because we make unconscious assumptions that it will be the woman that takes on the majority of the childcare, and that that will reduce her ability to do her job. In fact, people who are able to manage multiple demands on their time and execute a variety of responsibilities under pressure every day are exactly the people we should be wanting to recruit and promote, but somehow we have lost sight of the skills and experience that we’re throwing away.

It isn’t only women who feel excluded in the workplace. Fathers can feel that they’re not able to take on their share of parenting duties, often faced with the response of “can’t your wife do that?” when they ask for flexible hours or time away from the office to enable them to be more involved in key moments of their children’s lives. Men who do take advantage of shared parental leave or flexible working options often face sexism and mockery in the workplace. And work social events that take place only late on a Friday night can exclude parents who want to see their children for a few fleeting moments before they go to sleep. A number of parents are made unhappy, demoralised and disengaged by a long commute and inflexible work hours that mean they get little quality time with their families.

Beliefs

Some work is often done to capture whether employees have diverse religious beliefs, but religion is only a small part of what makes up our belief system, particularly in our modern society. Beliefs differ even within broad religious groups, and people have a variety of moral, spiritual and cultural beliefs that are not easily captured by tick boxes. We often make assumptions that everyone has similar beliefs and guiding principles to ourselves, because that shapes so much of how we view the world, but by assuming that we can easily offend and alienate others around us.

Political opinions have become increasingly tribal over recent years, and it can be easy to speak as if everyone around you will share your political outlook if you are firmly convinced that yours is the “right” one. We also tend to gravitate towards people who share our political and moral beliefs, which is why echo chambers are such a pervasive issue. We like to hear similar opinions repeated back to us because it makes us feel safe and comfortable. It reinforces our sense of self and our innate feeling that we are in the right. However, research suggests that diversity in politics and belief systems is just as important as other forms of diversity for driving creativity and innovation through different perspectives. Having a range of people with different beliefs enables your team to see a range of different angles, and can help them craft a message that will resonate with a greater number of individuals.

Rather than making everyone tread on eggshells, the best way to encourage inclusion with diversity of belief systems is to facilitate open conversations that give people space to share their beliefs and the way they see the world in an open and judgement-free environment. Giving people the opportunity to share the things that matter to them, and to learn from one another and expand their horizons, not only helps to make people feel that they’re genuinely part of an organisation they can fully contribute to, but helps them to think outside the box and see things in a new way. Skills that your organisation will definitely benefit from.

If you’d like help in understanding how you can harness the power of different types of diversity and create a culture of inclusion and belonging that works for everyone, then Watch This Sp_ce is here to help! You can email us at hello@watchthisspace.uk and browse our range of training and resources available to support you. The Reimagination at Work podcast also offers more inspiration and guidance to help you on your journey.

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