Diversity in Leadership: Diversity starts with us

Birmingham City Council

This blog is part of the Asian Business Chamber of Commerce’s (ABCC) Diversity in Leadership campaign.

The Diversity in Leadership campaign works with some of the regions’ biggest employers in order to boost the numbers of women and those from black and minority ethnic (BAME), lesbian gay bisexual and transgender (LGBT) and disability groups being represented on boards of directors and in leadership roles.

Click here to find out more about the campaign. 

Often we talk about diversity and inclusion as it affects other people, it a topic which is easier to discuss in the abstract or through the prism of headline statistics rather than our own lived experience.

As a white educated man it is easy for me to ‘pass’ in society, my ‘otherness’ as a gay man living with long term health issues is often invisible unless I disclose these aspects of my life, or when my health deteriorates and I have to use a stick or need assistance to get around.

Many would think that this makes it easier for me, yet that undervalues the stress of having to approach every interaction through a silent risk assessment of the other person’s beliefs and biases. Each day I, and many others like me, walk into rooms and gamble on whether being our full authentic selves is going to be career limiting or create barriers, both visible and hidden.

Throughout my career I have experienced episodes of discrimination, some of it direct but most of it indirect and quiet, whispers and rumours, rarely direct comments but little side remarks and implied challenges. I know of several major job opportunities that fell through or were blocked because of my sexual orientation, and sadly the research shows that this is not uncommon.

It took me many years to find peace to understand that individuals who discriminate are not people I want to work with, but this wasn’t an easy place to get to, but it was worth it and I am delighted to now be working at Birmingham City Council in a really diverse and vibrant city.

I have also been told that it is important not to be ‘too out’ or ‘too visible’ when it comes to diversity issues, that it will be seen as ploughing my own furrow or pushing a radical agenda because of vested interests. It’s a familiar piece of ‘helpful’ advice that those of us who put our head above the parapet get given, and although often meant in the best of intentions the reality is that it prevents the individuals who have the most lived experience shaping the response to inclusion in businesses and organisations.

It is a common saying that evil happens when good men remain silent, and when it comes to diversity often those in the majority don’t experience the triggers of discrimination because of being ‘other’  that motivate meaningful action.

What I would add is that it is important that when you step up it is important that you step up for more than just your own personal diversity experience.

It is easy to build on your own individual ‘otherness’ and that will always be a foundation for how you approach diversity and inclusion, but it is essential you are open to other stories and experiences.

Bridging across diversity strands isn’t always easy. In the early days of my work advocating for trans and lesbian communities I went on a vertical learning curve and was humbled by the stories of discrimination and harassment that people shared, and not least the way that these were often seen as normal within communities.

Sadly I often see diversity issues forced to climb on top of each other because of paucity of funds, or diluted through a washing that fails to understand the difference between different strands and goes for the bare minimum one size fits all approach.

Organisations often take the approach that we should do one thing well, rather than really confront the intersection between different experiences of diversity that need to be explored to truly raise everyone up and create matrix approaches that flex and learn across diversity strands so no one group is left behind.

It is common that people’s own individual experiences of ‘otherness’ overwhelming their ability to see different experiences. When we are angry, hurting and fighting it is hard to be generous to others, yet too often we see minority communities attacking other minority communities rather than working together to find solutions and recognising their shared experience of discrimination and marginalisation.  

We too often forget that all of us have experiences of being ‘other’, experiences when we have walked into a room an felt out of place, disconnected from other people or have that sensation that people are mentally pointing and judging. For many people this otherness is part of their reality every day and even when we are living through our own other experience it is important to hear and listen to others, and think about how we can act to help them.

Addressing diversity and inclusion in the workplace isn’t straight forward, and the challenges that we need to overcome to truly shift the dial for everyone are significant.

We have had over 30 years of diversity legislation yet every year thousands of people experience hate crimes, so the answer isn’t about rules and regulations, it is about personal action and commitment. I truly believe that we can only achieve this is each of us commits to diversity being more than I, it is about us, not us and them.

So I challenge you to step up this week and make time to talk to someone who comes from a different diversity perspective to you, hear their story and work on how you can help them and their diversity challenge.

Diversity and inclusion as a phrase has a lot of ‘I’s and only one ‘us’ but it is the us that is the pivot that truly makes it work.