Learning the Language of Diversity


6 min read
13 Oct

Joanne is a specialist in diversity, inclusion and belonging. I started by asking her what diversity and inclusion and belonging mean to her?

 ‘I always start by saying that we should avoid lumping those together. Too often people think about diversity and inclusion like they're Tom and Jerry, hand-in-hand. What we need to think about is diversity is one element, inclusion as another, and then belonging. 

I'm a great believer that when organisations start looking at this journey, whatever their reason for D&I is that they start by thinking about their own values, mission and strategy, and identify who they are as an organisation. They quite often talk about their brand in terms of their products, but how often do they think about their brand in terms of their employee attraction, their employee retention, how people feel working with them and talking about it? That's fundamental.

When the employer has this alignment of their vision, values, passion, the language, with the people that work there, that's when you feel this sense of belonging. A sense of belonging motivates you, it wants you to thrive, you feel this alignment with the values of the organisation, and that's where most people want to be. They want to work with an employer and an organisation that values them, and they value working for

From belonging, that sense of inclusion comes in. Because you're given a voice, you feel included, you're engaged, valued for who you are, and then the output of that is, diversity thrives. So rather than diversity compliance: we're trying to hire more women, hire more people with disabilities, we're trying to hire more black people… without getting the culture, the mission, the values in the organisation right first, you’ll be hiring people into a toxic environment. So, diversity, inclusion, and belonging, they're all separate, but interlinked. I say belonging is the starting point and where you want to aim, and diversity should follow.’

I told Joanna that I have often found that at the beginning of their journey, an organisation could be blissfully unaware that there are any issues around diversity and inclusion. The business could be doing well, there don’t seem to be any concerns. Sometimes though, there’s a tipping point, and that can be positive or negative. On the negative side, it could be an employee putting in a tribunal that's related to a particular protective characteristic. Or it could be positive like the chief executive goes along to a conference and realises how important diversity and inclusion is.

Organisations do tend to focus on diversity first, which feels like it's a bit of a kind of numbers game, so, "How many women do we have in the business? And at what level of the organisation? How many people from ethnic minority backgrounds?" But then they move on to more of a conversation around inclusion. I asked Joanne if this is something that she’s seen happen?

I started to see a lot of people talking about diversity. "We need more diverse hires, we need to focus on diversity." And, what is a diverse person? I keep asking people. When is a woman a diverse person? Given that half the population, give or take, are women. Women aren't diverse. The phrase I want to use is under-represented.

So women are under-represented, people of colour, Black people, people with disabilities, people with autism, whatever that may be, they are under-represented. So what we're looking to try and do is increase the representation of different people.

How we talk about things is important because when people focus on diversity as the nirvana, we can end up tokenising if we're not careful when what we want to do is understand why it's important to us as a business to have a gender balance.

If half the population are male, half the population are female, then it makes sense to have female representation in terms of product design, customer service, looking at innovation and looking at opportunities that a man may not see. As well as bringing some EQ and soft skills into the workplace that may not exist in a gender imbalanced environment. So having some power diversity.

Often, when C-Suite senior managers are looking at this, they're looking at the number and not that metric of the why behind it. They've learned that diversity is good, but they haven't understood why it's good. They don't know how to leverage that competitive advantage or that strength, and that's when people walk out.’

That reminded me of a film “Gender Decoded” where they talk about the number of women that were injured by airbags when they were first created in the 1960s. They couldn't understand why more women were being injured by airbags than men, but it was because the airbag was developed by an all-male engineering team. They designed airbags with an inherent bias for the male frame that made them more harmful to women.

Joanne talked about a study on Aspirin. ‘It found if you're susceptible to having a heart attack, taking a half an Aspirin a day can alleviate risk, but that was biased around male test patients. There's no evidence to support the fact that women benefit at all from taking Aspirin, whereas men do.

These are good examples where no one has actually sat back and said, "Who is the test group? How is it made up? What's the data we'll be getting out? What do we know from this?" All we know is that men are okay, and women haven't been thought about.’

The pandemic is throwing up loads of stuff around diversity and inclusion. I asked Joanne about the specialism in her work on gender diversity and what should businesses be aware of right now in the current climate?

The first thing is to recognise that the actual lived experience and the life experience of men and women are often different. There's often a societal and personal imbalance between the roles of women and the roles of men, and this is not being sexist. This is not stereotyping.

Many women take more responsibility for childcare, for running the home, economic admin, running the home. Men often take more responsibility for work and earning and traditional male roles. Whilst we're in the 21st century and we've come a long way, those gender imbalances still exist. Not everywhere, but in a good proportion.

With COVID and this lockdown situation, women are disproportionately disadvantaged in the home, where they live in a family, because they not only have to conform their work environment, their work task and be a great employee or a great business leader, they also have to be a great home leader and a parent and home educator.

It's true many men join in with this. I’m not trying to decry what they do. All the great fathers out there and great parents out there who are male, they're doing a fantastic job but often, if a child falls over and grazes their knee, they run to mum. The child wants help, their first reaction is to go to mum.

There may be a gender balance in the responsibilities in the home, but mum or the female parent tends to be the primary person the child will go to. That can have a huge knock-on effect. Then we think about things like domestic violence, and again, I appreciate that men are targets of domestic violence as well. But disproportionately, women are living in toxic relationships. So the home life, without generalising, tends to be a lot trickier for women. Employers should recognise that gender imbalance in the COVID situation exists and they can't treat all employees the same. They have to be very person-centric.

Equally, we must recognise that male suicide and male mental health is also a struggle and that being a man is not easy either. There are other diversity factors too like LGBT+, that stress of being in isolation, or the stress of living in a toxic home life environment, the stress of not being able to go out and be you and be your authentic self with your chosen family, rather than your home family, is also a big pressure for people.

There’s much to think about there. I'd say to employers, it's not just a case of thinking about the differences between men and women, between White people and Black people, it's about thinking about people as individuals. So thinking about their intersections, thinking about their needs, thinking about the stresses they have of being them, and dealing with it on a very personal level.

Joanne used the term person-centric which I like. So I asked her how business can avoid having that blanket approach that so many businesses take when they're designing diversity and inclusion interventions or programs?

I've developed that phrase through working with healthcare professionals in the NHS and other sectors. For me, person-centric design is a fundamental part of diversity and inclusion initiatives.

Huge organisations can't be person-centric down to the minutiae, but you always have to think about the person at the end of the policy and the impact that a decision or a voice, a language, or a statement may make to someone who doesn't think or react in the same way you do.’

What Joanne has said in the past has really resonated with me as somebody with a disability.

People are sometimes afraid of saying the wrong thing or causing offence, so they either make daft mistakes, or they avoid talking to me and avoid the situation altogether. That means that we only get inaction and nothing changes. I asked Joanne for her thoughts around language and what's good language or bad language?

‘Language evolves. Words that were common in language, 20, 30, 40, 50 years ago, are not great language today. The word "spastic", was once part of acceptable language. There was a Spastic Society. It meant something. It was only when the language was turned into pejorative phraseology, that it became a negative and fell out of fashion. Again, the word "handicap" was a very commonly used word, and now we've turned that around.

Language evolved because of the connotations when words became pejorative. We need to escape those words and define new language that’s owned by the community. So, "queer" is another great word. I know many people that hear the word "queer" and it strikes shivers down them. They've been a target and experienced that word being used against them.

Look at the younger generation now. Being queer, genderqueer, queer community, identifying as, "I'm queer," as an identity, so it's being reclaimed. We can look at that word and others in the disability community, in the race and faith communities, where they've owned the slur and turned it into an identity.

With language, you need to have some cultural sensitivity and some EQ and understand the context of the person with whom you're communicating with. I always talk about being accountable. So, if I say something, I need to be accountable for my voice.

It's not just about my intent, it's about my impact. If I didn't intend to hurt you, but the impact was that I did, I'll have to own that and say, "Well, I'm sorry. How could I do that better next time?" I always have a lot of time for people who own their language, who own their impact, who own their own footprint and who they are.

What I find very hard is when people push it back. The classic, "It was a mistake" is like pushing it away. It. Who made the mistake? Oh, you've made the mistake but you're not owning that, you're pushing it away. Own it. Be accountable. Be vulnerable. Apologise, move on and don't do it again.

Think about the words "transvestite", "transsexual". People still identify with those terms, but we've moved on. "Cross-dressing" is an acceptable term now for somebody who was previously called a transvestite. With the word "Transsexual", people who are trans generally don't use that word, because a general identity is an identity, it's above the shoulders.

With transsexual, the implication is it's below the waist. That's the kind of nuance and difference that we need to be sensitive to and ask. If someone is not sure how to greet you, they say, "Toby, is it okay if I shake your hand?" And you say, "I'd rather you didn't. I'd rather you shook this hand instead."

Or "Toby, would you prefer me to crouch down to speak to you? Or would you rather if I stood up and leant over you?" And you say, "Well, actually, if you pull up a chair, that's best for me." Being person-centric reaching out and asking, "How will this work best for you?” Meet people halfway and work it out together.’

I think what’s interesting here is that even in the disability community one of the biggest debates is whether we say, "disabled people" or "persons with disability". There are arguments for both sides. Some people are staunch about this where they say, "No, I'm a person with the disability. I'm not a disabled person because that's kind of putting the condition or the medical need first." Whereas, my preference is that I'm a disabled person. Part of that is laziness if I'm honest. It's fewer words. But it's also something I've grown used to and I'm quite happy with. I do think though that people just need to ask, "What language do you like to use, how do you like to self-identify?"

Joanne responded saying, ‘Since I don't identify within the disability community, I tend to say "a disabled person or a person with a disability", in a phrase to be inclusive of both identities. Then I explain why I've said that, because I know, as you’ve highlighted, some people are passionate about that.

It's almost like the Gulliver's Travels, "Which end of the egg do you open? Is it the pointy end or is it the round end?", sort of thing. As with the capital D-deaf and the small d-deaf, you have to be culturally sensitive and learn the needs of the community you're talking to.

If this is blowing the readers’ minds and it’s getting confusing, welcome to our club. Even when you're in the D&I space, it's not that easy. It's about emotional intelligence and cultural intelligence. Get those tools in your toolset, in your own personality, to better navigate these waters with respect, with curiosity, but understanding your impact and what that impact could do to somebody.’

I finished my rich discussion with Joanne by asking her what inclusive growth means to her and the work with clients.

‘I don't necessarily use that phrase actively in my vocabulary. So I ask myself what does it mean to me hearing you ask me that question? I describe the D&I, whatever it is, as a journey. There is no endpoint because it’s an infinite journey.

What we should do is look over our shoulder every so often and see how far we come. Not just judge it by how far we've got to go. So we can look back and say, "We have achieved a lot, we still got more to do." I’d say inclusive growth is plotting your course on that journey. For me it's about trajectory and velocity, picking a destination, making sure that it's navigable; making sure you've got the resources, the fuel you need to achieve that navigation by finding a speed and pace that is sustainable.

There's no point in going hell for leather into a destination, then realising when you get there, you've overshot, or the world's changed under your feet on the way and you haven't noticed. For me, inclusive growth is knowing where you're starting, where you want to go and how you want to get there.’

There are a range of options to get in touch with Joanne. Visit her LinkedIn page, drop by the See Change Happen website where you can also sign up to receive a weekly newsletter and subscribe to the Inclusion Bites podcast. Joanne has also produced a great Trans Allies handbook to give out to people. Include a note that you’ve read this article or heard my Inclusive Growth podcast to request your copy.