Kicking off a new series of articles on the important and globally topical issue of diversity and inclusion, Bradley Honnor, Managing Director of MatchFit and Yasmin Egala, Diversity, Inclusion and Wellbeing Champion at the Ministry of Justice discuss how D&I is currently being addressed, and why it is such a difficult area to get right.
I do feel that fundamentally, diversity and inclusion are currently being addressed in the wrong way!
People are grouped together and categorised, placing them in boxes of things that they might identify with, whether that’s their gender, sexuality, ethnicity et cetera. For me, that polarises and divides people right from the outset. Straight away, you have a group being used as an example or that are speaking about feeling excluded from their own perspectives, and then those on the outside of that group. For instance, if we’re talking about women and women’s experiences, then as a man that’s going to exclude me from sharing in that. But when we break that group down, are we talking about heterosexual women, white women or disabled women? The reality is that each of these may have different experiences.
When we get away from the polarised groups and start to look at the experience of an individual, and ask ‘what is at the heart of what we’re actually talking about?’, I think we can get into a more meaningful conversation. This individual focus doesn’t seem to feature in much of the current delivery of diversity and inclusion awareness, in my mind.
I agree with a lot of what you’re saying – this whole idea that there’s always one size fits all, putting people in boxes. What that doesn’t take into consideration is intersectionality. We don’t fall into just one box – just because you are a man or just because you’re a woman, that’s not all you are. There are different sides to all of us, so I agree with you that the problem with diversity and inclusion initiatives is that deficit models always look at the people that feel excluded. That makes everyone else feel as though they don’t have a part to play in diversity, or even guilty or ashamed because they belong to a majority group.
For change to come, I agree we need to move away from that and move to looking at people as individuals. We all have needs, we all want to feel safe, we want to feel like we belong and are included. This way, you get everyone talking and on the same page, so it will start off under equal footing, and away from the ‘them versus us’ mindset.
Being included or excluded from groups is not a nice feeling for most people, unless it’s a group we choose not to be associated with. If we look at the psychology, we know that humans need that social connection, to be part of a ‘tribe’, not out on our own, where we might be more vulnerable to danger. We want to be part of a family, part of the community and there is a natural tendency to gravitate towards a group, and towards things that we perceive are similar to ourselves.
If you look at what’s going on in American politics, it’s very unusual to hear a balanced view. It’s a very binary system, people are either Democrat or Republican, and feel that that their beliefs and values are correct and the ones that everyone should live by. When views are this polarised, it can make people reluctant to sit in a room and have a conversation. The irony is that when people do listen openly to each other, very often they can come up with an agreeable resolution.
The psychologist Carl Rogers developed a method of running encounter groups for conflict mediation, for example, with members of the IRA and English counterparts. You can imagine the tensions and hatred! But spending some time working with propositions such as unconditional positive regard, and really hearing and listening and understanding before judging, means that people came to a greater understanding of why others value what they value and believe what they believe. Where do we ever learn this way of communicating? We’re taught to debate in school, but not to actively listen – that is without thinking we already know what you’re going to say; forming our response in our head before you’ve finished speaking; or relating what you’re saying to ourselves.
Another challenge is how do we actually define inclusion? If someone in a categorised group within an organisation doesn’t feel included, does that mean the organisation is getting it wrong?
I agree with you and in terms of how we’re going to move forward, if you do what you always did you will get what you always got. So we have to do things differently. As you mentioned, we’re not taught to try to listen and to understand others. I think inclusion should be viewed as a journey, because human nature is that we are programmed to favour people like ourselves and to be more open to people that we perceive have similar experiences to us. Appreciating this is a journey recognises that sometimes we will be more open than at other times, rather than simply saying ‘you’re inclusive, you’re not’; ‘you’re good, you’re bad’. There will be times where we will fall short and then times when we make progress. It’s a roller coaster.
Our constructs are not always factual – while we know exactly who the president of the United States is, it’s not always like that when you’re listening to other people’s values, norms, beliefs and experiences. So listening to understand, not listening to put down or be defensive is a skill we need to develop. When people are listening to others’ experiences or way of life, there’s this tendency to try and categorise into good or bad, relative to our own beliefs. If instead we can try and understand each other, maybe we can appreciate where they are coming from.
That’s where we need to get to.
In our next article, Bradley and Yasmin share their thoughts on how to take the next steps on the D&I journey.