“EDI Lead it and Live it” is an ongoing project that launches in September. It is a collaboration between the University of Manchester and the University of Sheffield CDT Metallurgy.
Polkadot Consultants Ltd is proud to be the partner organisation in this endeavour.
Our MD Barry Wall muses on EDI as the STEM project reaches the halfway mark.
As the STEM EDI project motors ahead I am forced to consider various avenues, models and possibilities in the process, not least of all the biggest question for me…
What do we mean by success in STEM EDI, is it more of x or less of Y or to enable people to feel at home or able to leave and do so for the right reasons whoever they are?
EDI is phenomenally complex, achieving equality, diversity and inclusion is difficult, it is a balancing act akin to walking a tightrope. We can find this concept of EDI challenging and perhaps that is understandable but our tendency to simplify the complicated and complicate the simplistic is not helping.
This is exacerbated when we lump the three areas together as equality, as a concept, does not simply sit alongside diversity or inclusion and vice versa. It is the absolute bedrock from which the other two can be expressed and recognised as a reality, in an effective and profitable way.
To explore this, I asked myself the question…….
What have the Romans ever done for us?
Well, apart from the Viaducts, wine, public sanitation and roads, what have they ever given us?
Well, they were incredibly inclusive and diverse as well, no matter what your age, race, creed or colour, sexuality, ethnicity, gender or disability. Go the Romans!
They accepted you with open arms, you would make just as good a slave as the next person. Go toil for the rest of your life, we have ticked two of the EDI boxes HR requires.
This presented Caecilius, the senate HR director, with somewhat of a problem.
“That blessed third box needs ticking”
Well, they solved that by providing the possibility of being equal, you could become a free person if you tried hard enough, promotion is just around the corner.
We have been working on getting better at this ever since.
In the UK, we have bent over backwards to make sure that this laudable aim can be achieved, and, with the help of the courts; this legislation has gradually become fit for use as a behavioural template; providing a launch point for how people should be treated.
However, what the law will never be is a panacea, it is simply a marker for change, it is the state saying no more, loudly if not necessarily clearly.
As a gay man, I am acutely aware of how my sexuality has cost me dearly in my life.
Even this year I experienced homophobia in the business arena and in the social arena it was last week.
All this, 50 years after the state first said “no more” to the criminalisation of gay men.
And whilst I can defend myself well enough in the social arena every time I am called a “fag”, the decidedly more mediocre snide comments, unwanted questions and dismissals that can occur any day at any time in the workplace can be far more challenging.
Despite that, dealing with this reality is still my responsibility and to really put the E in EDI and simultaneously provide working environments in which people can truly thrive; we all have a personal responsibility to ourselves, and each other.
Equality begins at home so to speak. The responsibility lies firmly with you.
True equality will never be achieved by constantly howling that white straight men dominate the landscape, often characterising them as a group with every bad trait you can imagine (Gammon anyone).
Nor will it be achieved by systematically favouring one group over another, so that individuals can attain positions that they are neither ready or capable of excelling in, that way lies disaster.
It will not magically arrive because you have flattened the company structure, ensured that you have picked at least 3 people with a foreign name to interview or hung a rainbow flag from the office window.
Equality will only come when we, as individuals, take responsibility for ourselves. When we display a little stoicism, an indifference or passive response to emotion, to not go with the gut instinct, but give ascendancy to thinking and intellect.
It is an irony, that at the very time that we need that ability more than ever we are happily emotionalising workplaces and simplifying discourse, go figure.
I have irrational fears, that I fail on this front and am unfair or discriminatory in my dealings with other folk, I imagine we can all feel this way, and I emphasise feel. It is one hell of a battle to have with yourself, ongoing and never-ending but well worth having.
No matter how I feel, I would not give in to the ever-present emotions that implore me desperately to punch someone in the face for the sheer pleasure of it, or those that encourage the avoidance of responsibility for discriminating to avoid the pain it causes me in guilt.
Likewise, I do not give in to the side of me that would decide about the individual I have just met and the capabilities they possess, because of irrational feelings or a trait they possess that might be new or different to my experiences.
This battle has been a never-ending and deeply personal one, nevertheless, in the societal and cultural struggle for equality, we must be vigilant of threats that arise and already exist, that can prevent us, or even encourage us to give up that personal fight.
Discrimination – Is Not A Bad Thing
In my fight to become adept at fostering in me the very best that EDI represents I found that the very word discrimination became problematic.
By nature, humans discriminate all the time, it is simply what we do. We form groups, even gangs and include or exclude on a whim. This is not necessarily problematic in a general societal setting and is quite possibly important for personal sanity and wellbeing.
As an example, in my case, I sometimes crave the company of Gay Men, (not in that way tsk!) simply because of the commonalities culturally and philosophically we share. I actively exclude people from that gathering, not because I am disdainful or hateful of anyone other than gay men, it is simply me discriminating. Is that a bad thing?
I am of course free to do this, no one bats an eyelid, nor should they, it is a matter of choice, for each and everyone of us.
Discrimination can be wonderful, I want to be able to discriminate between a Banger and a decent sausage, a single malt over an own brand bottle of firewater or why Citizen Kane has more cultural significance than Sharknado 3. We do it in work, in differing ways, who we have lunch with, drink with, confide in and relate to. This is our choice and again no one bats an eyelid, it is humans at socialising after all.
This is often seen in organisational cultures and can happen along lines of ethnicity or gender or any other characteristic you care to describe, and it can be a good thing, Gym club anyone.
What does become problematic is when these groupings are simply not social, but exclusive, they become tribal when one group of people separates from the organisational whole and develops a culture within that culture.
And that kind of behaviour, if left alone; can manifest as a particularly thorny problem. This is where discrimination becomes something a lot nastier, the idea of privilege creeps in, and as organisations across the UK wake up to the full importance of EDI you can begin to see these micro cultures in action.
This is not privilege as in obtaining keys to the executive washroom or a better parking space, but privilege that allows group members to utilise power in often disastrous ways, to bully, cleverly and often passive aggressively and affect overall organisational culture, and danage people within it.
The tendency to allow privilege to individuals because of group membership can be problematic, can cause people who question that group to fear being silenced or punished and they often are.
Holding power as an individual allows the discrimination to take place, power born of inequality. Because you are the interviewer and not the interviewees, because you pay them or from an organisational perspective, because they challenge the group agenda and don’t fit into the organisational culture.
An organisational culture that is often not a culture at all but a disparate number of cliques who spend all day dodging elephants in rooms, ticking boxes and is predominantly made up of individuals who look like they are doing something when really, they are trying to be something.
This is the true enemy of equality, group identity as armour, silencing and closing discourse with the certainty that a complicated issue is a simple right or wrong, stifling the very communication that equality truly needs…
“You can’t say that.”
It is this kind of discrimination that needs redefining.
Redefining for what it is, “Othering”, plain and simple.
Othering – The Process of Perceiving or Portraying Someone or Something as Fundamentally Different or Alien. This allows us to escape from our basic humanity and if deliberate; is an act of ignorance, it is a direct act, a choice.
It is of course, possible to make an error and appear to “other” someone. That is an act of innocence, unknowing but still direct behaviour that can be remedied through conversation and learning.
The idea of Unconscious Bias brilliantly obfuscates on this basic learning process, by complicating the simplistic, you do it, but you don’t know it, it is built in by organisations and society, it is a defect that must be corrected.
But what if Unconscious Bias is simply an abdication of responsibility tool that organisations have jumped on to show that they are doing all they can but are achieving little or nothing. Is it just another box ticking enabler?
Nobody in their right mind would say they wouldn’t employ someone because they are black, female, old or gay, but it still happens every day, I have experienced it, this is a tyranny, the misuse of power and this manifestation of “Othering” is easily recognised if not so easily tackled despite much progress being made.
But “othering” is far more insidious and goes beyond the bounds of what the state proscribes as unacceptable. One such manifestation of “Othering” allows the labelling of people with “unwanted views” as racist, homophobic, bigoted, misogynistic, ableist or even gammon these days and often when the issue people wish to explore is none of the above.
This is as opposed to recognising that it is exploring these very issues, through talking, that changes hearts and minds and that this is what we all need to do. That we should not capitulate to emotionalism or virtue signalling, that we discuss, debate and persuade, that way great organisations are built.
This “Othering”, toxic in manifestation, and perhaps best described as the tyranny of group identity; can prevent us from asking, without the very real and damaging fear of howling opprobrium….
“What about X, I don’t understand, what do I need to know, where did I go wrong”
We must be wary that in our rush to ensure that EDI works, we do not swap the power-driven tyranny of the individual, for the same power-driven tyranny of the group.
To safeguard against this in the disruptive world in which we reside, we need more conversation, critical thought and debate, not less. We desperately crave simplicity in a world of phenomenal complexity and we must resist that urge.
In organisations which are set to experience the need for EDI more than ever before we must strive not to entertain the group identity mythology, some white older men are racist gits, yes, but not all young people are snowflakes, not all Queer people are capable, some women are useless and just because someone has a disability does not mean that they aren’t incompetent.
Ain’t Easy Though Is It?
No, we have fought for a form of EDI that works with most effect for millennia, fought wars over it, killed for it and we will continue to do so. It is the most culturally divisive phenomena in history.
But at times of cultural and social polarisation like today, organisations are going to have to do more than tick boxes, they are going to have to start at the very top and recognise that EDI is not simply about percentages and quotas, media moments and photo opportunities, it is about a personal commitment to recognise “Othering” wherever it manifests.
Within organisations, everyone must recognise this phenomenon of “othering” and decide, stoically, intellectually and without personal favour; that the power they hold, however derived, is to be used as a force for harmony or discord.
This brings us back to the individual who must distinguish that privilege, however granted, is not the enemy of equality, it is a personal social position that allows you to use your influence advancing equality or not, you decide this, it is in your power to do so, devil or angel, disease or cure.
This is the ability that will separate the Leaders of today from the Managers of yesteryear.
It is complicated, it is messy, rather like the UK now.
Perhaps we should consider the following:
- Leaders inherently recognise their own weaknesses and when they need to learn
- Knowing equality law does not enhance equality, it is often used to find ways to avoid it
- Everyone’s informed opinion counts, if you don’t know what you are talking about then recognise your learning need and say so.
- Leaders lead, they do not cajole, bully or threaten, they persuade and convince through their own behaviour
- People are capable because of the abilities they possess not because of the group they represent, the colour of their skin or who they sleep with
- Utilising your given power as a membership of a group to promote discord as opposed to harmony makes you a detriment to equality
- “Othering” takes many forms, must be spotted and tackled
- Emotional responses are the enemy of good leadership
- The individual, wherever placed, ultimately holds the power to a more egalitarian future
- EDI are not 3 seperate things, together they are strong
- If the EDI practice of the organisation does not start at board level in the strategic planning then it may well be simple window dressing
- EDI is hard, complicated and expensive, but absolutely vital to the future and in the end will lead to greater success in a multitude of ways