There seem to be several ways that people tackle the issue of diversity in the workplace as far as I have experienced it. Having occupied various positions in white, middle-class dominated work environments, the issue of diversity has exercised me for a long time. I have been regarded as “the ethnic minority” in some places by virtue of the fact that I am of Jewish heritage, am married to an Iraqi-Israeli and my kids were born abroad. I have seen the almost visible domino effect of assumptions that click into place when people find out these facts about me. But, better out than in I say. If people can tell me what they assume about me, at least then I can work through the stereotypes with them and isolate what is right and what is not. One of the most destructive things is to ignore altogether race, identity, culture, colour, whatever it is that makes for difference between people.
Whether or not I can lay claim to be classed as an ethnic minority is immaterial. I am wholly and passionately committed to doing what I can to break down barriers that exist for people based on the sex, gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity, whatever the multifarious categorisation that exists that causes these barriers. This is why I am shoving my white-privileged nose into the group of people now committed to forming the #Educolour movement in this country. And I trust each and every one of them to speak truth to me at any point.
One of Stonewall’s diversity champions once told me, when I was concerned whether I could effectively look out for the rights of others, that there is no better advocate for diversity in a workplace than someone who might outwardly represent the accepted norm. “People might listen to a black guy talking about racial equality in the workplace, but if a white person is a passionate advocate, that will get people’s attention for sure”.
The biggest problem I have encountered is that people don’t want to talk about it. This is probably mainly because they are worried about saying something wrong and causing offense, But many don’t want to accept even the basic fact that subconscious bias and racism is rife within our society. Or worse still, people pretend to be “colour-blind”. Unless each one of us is willing to admit it is our problem, nothing at all will change. Unless each and every one of us just connects with the places where we do assume, discriminate, overcompensate, skirt around, feel uncomfortable, behave differently to people, then we will just perpetuate the problem.
Here are some uncomfortable moments I have had while on recruitment panels that might make your jaw drop:
Panel of two white women, one white man. White, male, middle-aged, middle-class interviewer goes off script and asks young, Asian woman: “Are you spoilt?”
She, unfazed, quick as anything says: “No, but my brother is! Have you met an Indian mother who doesn’t spoil her son?! He is her sunshine. I don’t get to be spoilt!”
We all laughed and moved on to the next question. I died inside. When we got out of the room, I challenged my senior colleague. “What was that all about? Why on earth did you ask that?”
“Oh” He said, completely nonplussed by my obvious disdain. “I once knew an Indian woman who was really spoilt. I didn’t want you to have to deal with that on your team”
I liked her, I wanted her on my team. She is personable, she has already proved herself to be quick-witted and feisty. She has got through to a face-to-face interview based on passing several stages of the recruitment process including three written tasks. The standard of her writing is excellent and she has displayed a creativity of thought in her responses. The second woman on the panel is worried about her ability to represent the organisation because she has a lilting, Delhi accent. I remind her that according to the job we have advertised, she needs to be able to write quickly and accurately, using a high standard of English. She has proved to be able to do this and moreover, seems like she could fit in really well with the rest of the team, our values and so on. “Some aspects of writing are just there, they can’t be taught” I was told by my colleague by way of explanation of her doubts about this candidate.
I can feel myself fighting for this person and fighting through assumptions, prejudice, all dressed up as genuine concerns but moreover, all based on subtle discrimination and not on the facts before us. She turned out to be one of the best members of my team.
My colleagues weren’t bad people. They saw themselves as very open-minded and committed to diversity. But there are boundaries to all of our ability to really challenge ourselves and ask honestly what subconscious bias could be playing out here.
A white, male colleague and I are waiting for two candidates to show up for an interview. One has what could be described as a non-English, Arabic name, the other has a very “English” standard male first name and surname. The first to arrive is a black man, and we both assume this is the one with the Arabic name. It is only when the second candidate shows up for the interview that we realise that we are wrong. She is a woman and cannot possibly be the one with the standard English male name.
After the interviewees have left and knew nothing of our silent confusion, I can’t contain my embarrassment and say to my colleague: “Woah, massive racist assumptions there from both of us!” He claps his hand on his forehead and said “How many discriminatory stereotypes went into that little misunderstanding?!” Awful, but at least we were aware that this actually happened and at least we could openly talk about it and think what we would do next time to ensure this doesn’t happen again.
Some years ago, I keep hearing some of my colleagues declare proudly, openly and frequently that we have a team that is predominantly made up of young, Russell Group university-educated men and women. It takes me a while to understand why this makes me angry. I challenge them on this and ask why this makes us a good place to work. I am not young, nor Russell Group educated, and I am the only person to have recruited not one, but two people onto my team who don’t have a university degree at all. The first hire sparked consternation when my boss realised that they didn’t fit the ideal standard, but once they had proved themselves to be superb at their job and display a lot more intelligence and resilience than some of our more “thoroughbred” members of the stable, it was easier to get the second one through. They both had a maturity and solid work ethic that ensured that we got things done and to a high standard.
My challenge to my previous workplace was a challenge to this idea that having people who have made their way through a path of privilege means that they are necessarily better at their jobs than others. In my experience, some of the best-educated and holders of the highest accolades from Oxbridge were the weakest staff members in terms of their teamwork, resilience, creativity and initiative-taking. I was told time and again, “we need the best candidate for the job, and the easiest way to see that is through their qualifications and work experience”. What is not clear here is that there are so many barriers to people who don’t have access to the level of privilege needed, that they may not be getting a shot at the places of education and work that others may be able to just glide in to.
We really have to create a recruitment process that both sorts people’s ability to do the job advertised but that also can sort between things that are trainable skills and things that are essential to have inbuilt. This is where we have an opportunity to halt the assumptive wheels of institutional prejudice and actually create a step for people to take.What I mean is this. Faced with two potential candidates, I must look to see where I can challenge myself and my own assumptions. I must also look to see if with a small amount of effort on my part, I might be able to provide an opportunity for someone who has proved that they can do the job well but may not have the standard set of traits of privilege that we lazily may assume make them the “best candidate” for the job. If I can take someone on and invest an extra few hours of training in them to fill any gaps, which may cost the organisation slightly more, I will. I know that through doing this, I have diversified the workplace, shifted the accepted norms about what pathways people need to have followed to land here, and have broadened my own and my colleagues’ horizons about where good people can come from, I must do this. And if I need to fight a bit to do it, I will.
There are simple things that we can all do, and that we all must do. We must embrace our own prejudice and never avoid an opportunity to delve deeper into it to understand it better. We must call out prejudice when we see it (including our own!) but not in a confrontational and aggressive way, we need to champion growth-inducing challenge and whenever possible model a better way through as many channels as possible – such as recruitment processes as I have tried to illustrate here. This is what I mean when I say, change begins with you.