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Experiential diversity: A new way of understanding equality in the voluntary sector

‘Diversity’ and ‘equality’ are popular buzzwords in the voluntary sector, but how often do we think about what they really mean? Maybe if we were to have an open discussion about difference – in all its more and less obvious forms – we would be in a better place to answer the questions they raise?

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di•ver•si•ty

[dih-vur-si-tee, dahy-]
–noun, plural -ties.
1. the state or fact of being diverse; difference; unlikeness.
2. variety; multiformity.
3. a point of difference.

Photo by Christopher Edwards, Creative Commons

There are innumerable pieces of legislations around the world that exist to balance historical and present-day discrimination. These have, I believe, been created with the best of intent – honest attempts to right wrongs that have existed for generations and still hide in the crevices of our institutions and the subconscious of our minds.

But many of my colleagues – often those who would check more boxes than I do on an equalities monitoring form – feel that the current approach may intend to encourage diversity, but in fact creates a smokescreen for a more subtle and insidious form of discrimination.

As one colleague – a black man from a housing estate in Southeast London, working in a national charity put it – ‘I went to university to learn to be white’.

Or as another colleague who recently finished a report on race equality in the private sector found, many of the non-white senior managers interviewed admittedly described themselves as culturally ‘white.’

Diversity?

So while there has been a semi-successful trend towards more visibly integrated workplaces, there is still an issue with homogeneity; people who check boxes, but who have either:

a) Lived very similar lives to those who represent the professional status quo (which is still broadly white, middle class, university educated), or
b) Have adopted or adapted to the culture of the professional status-quo, to be ‘allowed’ into that world.

In either case, the result is the same: many workplaces are less diverse than their monitoring forms might suggest. They still hire exclusively ‘professionals’, and what we understand as ‘professional’ is far too closely linked with what we generally see to be white, male and middle-to-upper-middle class. Thus many of our voluntary and non-profit organisations are missing out on the vast potential energy, creativity, perspective and insight that people who have taken a different path than we have, could offer our work and the people we support. They may even have a lot more in common with the people we support than we do, the value of which should not be overlooked. If our organisations want to tap into the diverse potential that exists outside of our ‘professional’ cultures, we can’t just hire people who don’t look, but still very much act as we do.

That said, I don’t want to minimise the importance of the shift that has occurred – that an Asian woman or a young gay man are more able to get into the professional workforce than they were a few decades ago, is of course a terrific victory on many fronts.

However, if that Asian woman or that gay man must either be born into economic privilege, or learn to give-up significant elements of their own culture to be accepted, then, in my opinion, this represents a pretty significant short-coming of the current approach.

The Marxist argument

Point a) above essentially follows a traditional Marxist class argument and while valuable, has been rehashed many times before by others more qualified than I. I would only add that our institutions (on the whole) selectively include people from non-dominant communities, who still fit most of the economic (and, often correspondingly, cultural) criteria typically associated with the dominant community. Which raises questions about the kind of diversity that is (or isn’t) being fostered in many professional workplaces. We can handle the differences of skin colour, sexual orientation, and religion better than we used to, but when it comes to interacting with people who DO THINGS differently from us, we come up with a range of excuses for why they ‘aren’t right for the job’.

Or is it more complex…?

Point b), however, raises a less-unpicked argument; that the ‘DNA’ of the current professional paradigm (across the sectors), is still very much the DNA of a privileged, white, straight, male reality, and that those from outside this reality who rise through its ranks must adopt (to varying degrees) that dominant culture in order to do so.

Basically, our idea of ‘professionalism’ is not something we can honestly describe as culture-neutral.

The opposition

When I’ve posed this hypothesis to others, the negative responses tend to fall into one of two categories:

1) The DNA of the professional world is simply the most effective and appropriate for getting things done, and is not an issue of values or methods associated with any particular group.

2) While the professional ‘DNA’ may be reflective of a dominant community, there are too many non-dominant communities to shift it, so it makes most sense to maintain the current way of working.

‘It’s the best’

The first argument I simply can’t believe; there is too strong a correlation in a) western countries and b) in other parts of the world following periods of imperialism or top-down globalisation, to assume that the structure and modes of working are not associated with a particular dominant group. The ‘Efficiency Drive’ which justifies a vast array of negative practices across the sectors, does not appear to have emerged from, or grown naturally in many other cultures (beyond a traditionally European-descended ‘elite’), without economic or political coercion. The argument that it is simply ‘the best’ verges on discriminatory against the cultures that don’t automatically adopt its methods.

‘There are too many alternatives’

The second argument I usually counter with a less binary option: we need to actively encourage (as some workplaces do) a range of people from non-dominant groups to take more active roles in shaping workplace cultures, in their own images (rather than allowing the workplace cultures to force a shape on them, by default). A workplace culture does not have to be one homogenous entity, but can actually itself adopt elements of the range of influences it allows itself to open up to.

While different understandings of ‘professionalism’, working relationships, hospitality, non-verbal communication and countless other assumed subtleties may not immediately mesh with one another, I feel this is a challenge we are capable of starting to address in the 21st Century. We need to have the discussions about the assumptions our organisations subconsciously impose, within and beyond their walls. We need to acknowledge alternatives, learn from other communities, countries, our own personal lives even, and see how we could involve, say, potluck lunches, events with families of staff, changes to how we hold meetings, design office plans and how decisions get made…

Outreach

There’s also the question of the external image our organisations present. While our traditional definitions of workplace diversity may help foster some sense that our organisations are really ‘for everyone’, this is unlikely to last if those we’ve hired who check boxes on a form are still worlds removed from the experiences of the young people, ex-offenders, refugees or others we may try to support. This is not to say that everyone who works for an organisation should be from its client group, but that this can create a sense of shared experience which tends to make people more comfortable engaging with otherwise seemingly-foreign institutions.

Think of the number of times you’ve walked by an African barber shop, a gay bar, a mosque, a Polish convenience store, and never even thought of going in because the people hanging around were so far separated from your own experience of the world. Maybe this is something you’ve never even noticed, because the idea of walking into such a place is so radical it doesn’t even cross your mind at such moments?

When you’re part of a dominant culture it can be easy to forget that we create these same sentiments amongst others; that when a bunch of us who look, talk and act in similar ways work together, our work may well take on associations of difference to those who do not feel a part of that world. Then add to this difference the power dynamics still so often associated with a dominant group and you’ve got a pretty off-putting combination. If we want to be inclusive to those outside of our organisations, as well as those inside, we need to think about what we mean by diversity and equality. Any real attempts to address inequality must address the less visible issues of difference that continue to drive unspoken wedges between us.

Mixing it up…

How can we bring pieces of Ghana, Vauxhall, Pakistan, Peckham, Poland and Dagenham into our workplaces, without subsuming them in a still broadly Oxfordian establishment (which I feel most of us not of that ilk must conform to ourselves, even if it’s a more subtle shift)? I know that making a list from the aforementioned place names and putting them on a form with check boxes beside them is not the way to do it. It is not simply about including more people in the established protocols of the day, it is also about ensuring people can be included without having to take on the traits of those they have never shared true equality with. It’s about the system changing for the people, not simply the other way around. If the systems aren’t changing, what kind of diversity are we trying to foster? Is this a manifestation of true equality, or does it just allow us to see enough difference to stop asking the uncomfortable questions about power that we might not want to admit still need asking?


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Posted in accountability and equality and leadership + management and power and professionalism and Uncategorized.

3 comments

3 Replies

  1. Katherine Nov 8th 2010

    Liam – as ever, a very good argument, and one I’ve made myself: that an organisation with a diversity policy, which will often grade itself on tick box criteria, will often end up adding to the idea that we all fit into types.

    One thing I object to though: when you talk of “subsuming [people] in a still broadly Oxfordian establishment” I think you’re guilty of precisely the assumptions that you purport to reject: namely, that because people are on the surface part of a particular community they are all of a ‘type’ that can be checked off. It’s a reductionist and too-easy point to make.

  2. Liam Barrington-Bush Nov 8th 2010

    Hi Katherine – thanks for the comment… raises an interesting question, but I feel that the ‘types’ question does critically apply in a collective context (while a group’s individuals may hold elements of a range of different ‘types’).

    Basically that, while you and I may have significant differences in our experiences, attitudes, behaviours, etc, we also have some that are likely quite similar. If we happen to be a part of an organisation with several other people who also happen to share the same traits as you and I might share, there becomes a collective similarity that our group comes to embody, based on those shared traits (ways of writing, meeting, speaking, etc).

    This is not to say that we don’t still have our differences, but that our similarities become the dominant traits of the organisation, as they are usually key to the ways we work together, speak together, etc.

    If we don’t acknowledge this collective similarity (in regards to ways of working, organising, learning and other activities), it can be impossible to identify the difficulties for people who don’t share the traits of the organisation, to engage with it.

    If it’s specifically the ‘Oxfordian’ reference that stuck out, again, it is not, by any means, that Oxford grads are all cookie-cutter human beings, but that are enough similarities that such an education fosters, to create a ‘culture’ that (to some degree) defines ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’ (while both groups may well have a range of other common traits with each other beyond the differences such an education may foster).

    Just as the African barber shop or the Soho gay bar have a vast range of people that go to them, with a vast number of different characteristics as individuals, when they get together in those contexts, certain similarities become collectively dominant to those who don’t share them… Just as an African barber shop is just ‘a barber shop’ to those who hang out there, I would argue that a broadly Oxfordian office is just ‘an office’ to most of us who work in it.

    Does that make sense? Keen to delve into this one some more, if we’re not seeing eye-to-eye 🙂

  3. Thought provoking stuff, Liam!

    Diversity is not about how we differ. Diversity is about embracing one another’s uniqueness – Ola Joseph


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