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Diversity and Role Models

I’ve been struggling a bit on how to articulate challenges with ‘representing diversity’, and whether an organisation is ‘doing the right things’ when, for instance, ensuring someone has not organised a #manel.

Many conferences can feel like this parking lot. (Photo from unsplash)

As with many things in life, it is easy to see when something ‘is not quite right’, especially if you’ve started looking for it. These days as I walk into a room, sit down at lunch, or enter a lecture theatre I’ll instinctively do a head-count of the number of people who present to me as women, as compared to the total number of individuals present.

Even this assessment is complicated, as they may not all be the women who are present, as some women may present with a more male appearance, and I’m unclear of how non-binary people will choose to present themselves. However, my assessment does remind me that if there is an absence or lack of women present, there’s something wrong or strange.

Is this group diverse? I don’t know. But I do know that they all look young, so probably not. (Photo from unsplash)

Gender is perhaps the most pronounced of the characteristics, though the complexity of trans and cis individuals, as well those who identify as non binary, demonstrates that this is more complex.

We can compare the presentation of gender, and representation there of, with regards other visible protected characteristics. In these cases, it is especially noticeable when there is an absence of these individuals in a setting, however, I can rarely tell if the representation is reasonable. Do the number of black people in the room reflect the number of black people in the population? Even then, can I decide in what reference population should I be considering? Is this the UK-based general population, or should the population be specific to the target grouping which this grouping can address (e.g. UK black female professors, of which there are only 25 in 2016)? In practice, this again simplifies complexity. We are only scratching the story of race and ethnicity here, as for instance ethnic make-up for one human being depends on an individuals cultural history as well as their relationship to the current environment (and vice versa).

The story of apparent representation becomes ever more complex when we explore ‘hidden’ characteristics, such as with hidden disabilities. It can also extend to people who ‘mostly/sufficiently present as’ the norm (e.g. a bisexual individual who can ‘pass’ as straight, and as a consequence often also gets erased from our narrative).

The complexity is extended further when we consider those people who possess more than one of the protected characteristics, and the intersectional nature of their experience. How do we ‘audit’ these individuals when we assess a space or activity? How do we ‘value’ their voice or contribution to the space or experience we wish to share?

What about those characteristics which are not felt to impinge on the individuals ability to access a particular space? e.g. I’m ~mildy dyslexic, which means I am a member of the neurodiverse crew. However the impact of this, besides you suffering my grammar failures and spelling errors in reading this blog piece, is limited in my lived experience. However, in certain contexts I’ll bring it up because then I may feel that it is important within the discussion or backstory.

For events where there are small number of chances to ‘show representation’ (e.g. take a look at the pictures in this blog piece), do we do it justice? Do we include everyone? How have we sampled the population to find people who are suitably qualified (there are loads) and had a view to ensuring that there are a sufficient number of underpresented individuals included to tell their stories, share their viewpoints, and act as beacons who we may choose to look up to in terms of role models?

Do you feel that all aspects that reflect your make-up are reflected in this list? (photo from unsplash)

Even in terms of role models, we run into challenges. If we consider the make-up of an individual, with it’s many facets and components that will influence the potential choices as well as those decisions that were made, it is difficult for us to emulate an individual precisely. Furthermore, if we reflect that each of us is an individual, perhaps this form of role-model identity is incorrect and instead we might look towards our role models as inspiration for difference facets of our lives. This might also enable us to rationalise their, and our own individual, flaws and weaknesses.

I’m afraid for me the question of suitable representation of diversity is not yet answered. It is made more complex by the range of experience by those who are evidently a member of an underrepresented group (e.g. women or BAME people in senior academic ranks) vs those who can present as a member of the ‘majority’ while having a lived experience that does not reflect the ‘expectation’ of normalcy which would provide them with an easier path to professional, or personal, success.

It’s always challenging for me to find a role model. There is noone ‘quite like me’ — that’s not to say I feel that I’m special, it’s more that I’m equally different to everyone else. I will find a few people who share parts of my story to be inspired by. (Photo from unsplash)

Ultimately in the search for a sufficient number of role models, is it reasonable to reduce people down to their individual characteristics and categorise them against a series of pre-prescribed traits? These categories feel necessary when we want to point out deficiencies in the status quo, provided we have an established expectation of what under- (or over-) representation consists of. Yet, this view feels flawed if we wish to celebrate people being people, with their individual and rich lived experience. Perhaps we can be content when there is sufficient ‘otherness’ present for diversity to be represented?

I’m still pondering on this issue, and this piece is very rough and ready, so if you have something to share please don’t be afraid to (gently) nudge me. I’m probably best found on twitter as @bmatb

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