How *not* to do Diversity and Inclusion

So I’m taking a little break from my usual reflections on the process of starting a business this week, because something else is occupying most of my mental space, and I really need to share it. CW — this is going to be a rant!

Yesterday I attended the Cranfield Alumni Conference on Inclusive Talent Management. As is so often the case with conferences centred on diversity and inclusion issues, it was an incredibly warm, sociable, welcoming, and - well- inclusive event. Networking breaks were lively with everyone happy to introduce themselves and have a chat, the sun shone, and generally all was right with the world. We had some awesome speakers on various aspects of diversity at work, from women and ethnicity on boards to disability and carers (QOTD came from disability rights advocate Dr Alice Maynard, commenting on the “reasonable adjustments” UK companies are required to make for disabled employees by law… “We make all sorts of adjustments for all our staff to keep them safe and healthy. I mean, we provide office chairs because you need to sit down. That’s an adjustment for you. I bring my own chair, you don’t.”). There was a really interesting session from Livity, a youth-led creative network which helps young people change the world, in which the CEO and a project lead talked about the work they do with organisations to empower people to give of their best. One of the aspects they talked about was the move from “having a voice” to “being heard” and they suggested practical things organisations can do, such as reverse mentoring from young people to those on the board. There was a strong focus on the value organisations will get from listening to and engaging with a range of diverse voices.

Dr Alice Maynard, CBE

So far, so good. But then the floor opened up for questions. Time was tight and Professor Emma Parry was ably facilitating the Q&A to make sure as much ground as possible could be covered. She eventually had to draw to a close, at which point she said “OK let’s take one last question, I’ll go to the gentleman over there”. As she was walking over to the delegate in question (who happened to be black, which is relevant) and taking him the microphone, a loud and assertive voice barked out from a white, middle aged, public-school-sounding man at the back: “I’ve got a mic, and I have a question, so let’s just have 2 more questions, I’ll ask mine now”. This wasn’t a polite request, it was more of an order… Emma and the delegate she was heading towards looked startled, and glanced over, as did the rest of us. The delegate politely gestured, as if to say “you go ahead”. We all expected the guy to be embarrassed and step back. Reader, he did not. He grabbed his mic, and said “At my organisation we have all these innovation projects going on but we just don’t seem to be able to absorb them into the organisation, how do we do that?”.

I mean. He sits through a session on how to engage, listen, and ensure everyone’s voices are heard. Then he manterrupts the female professor leading the session, and then totally erases the voice of the black delegate who was actually about to speak. All while wondering why the people in his organisation don’t feel motivated or listened to. The audience was aghast, and — I think — too shocked to call him out, although in retrospect I wish we had done. Frankly, the way he slapped his white male privilege onto the room felt like a violation; the atmosphere of engagement which had been created just dissolved. But I don’t think he was even aware of it.

I haven’t named this guy because this isn’t really about him, he just exemplifies all the things I, and many other people like me, want to change about the way the world works. His sense of entitlement was so strong that he didn’t even recognise the disjunction between words and actions, despite having heard so many people all day talking about exactly those issues. As Deborah Frances White says, privilege is like oxygen, it’s not something you notice when you have plenty of it, but you sure as hell know when you don’t.

This is why I do what I do. Why I keep trying to find new ways to make the working world more inclusive. Why Umbrella exists,and if it fails, why I’ll come up with another mission. Why I left working for an organisation where I didn’t feel included. Why I will collaborate with anyone working towards the same goal. Why I will use my voice where I can to amplify voices of those who aren’t being heard. Why I will never, ever give up.