In recent years we’ve seen a number of high-profile instances of racially insensitive (or flat-out racist) 'faux pas' committed by some extremely visible corporations. H&M’s "Coolest Monkey in the Jungle" controversy, L’Oréal’s sacking of Munroe Bergdorf and Gucci’s blackface jumper are just a few examples of what we can only presume happens when there’s an absence of diverse decision-makers occupying senior positions at an organisation.
As the average British employee knows, poor judgement from leaders at work reaches far beyond the realms of the fashion and beauty industries, and often dwells outside the boundaries of just race. As a result, it’s often those who find themselves working at companies where they’re the ‘only’ or the ‘other’ who are most likely to be affected by the fallout from these decisions.
After all, it’s not easy to call out gender bias when you’re the only woman working in your division, or to highlight the need for LGBTQ+ representation if you only have a handful of openly gay colleagues. Finding an effective way to advocate for change on behalf of whichever community you belong to, in a way that you’re comfortable with, requires considered thought and planning.
The good news is that there’s never been a better time for it, according to new research from LinkedIn which shows that the UK now employs twice as many equality and diversity professionals per 10,000 employees as any other country. Despite this, PwC’s Global Diversity & Inclusion Survey suggests this is an area that’s still very much in its maturation phase, with a third of respondents agreeing that they felt diversity was hindering their career progression.
With this in mind, the first and probably the most crucial thing to note is that unless you work in equality and diversity, championing change, progression and inclusion isn’t your duty, regardless of how passionately you may feel about it. "Changes to culture have to start with the organisation wanting to change their culture. One person cannot do that. And we always have to remember that the buck doesn’t start and stop with us, because otherwise all we end up doing is burning ourselves out emotionally and mentally," says diversity and inclusion consultant, Sonia Meggie.
Yinka Opaneye, group HR director at GameAnalytics, cautions us to be mindful of this emotional toll. "It’s important to consider: are you in the right frame of mind and do you have the strength to challenge these kinds of situations? Understand that it’s difficult when you’re dealing with these things," he explains.
Identifying your allies
A key talking point that’s surfaced as a result of the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement is allyship and the importance of people in positions of privilege using their voices to defend marginalised individuals from things like microaggressions, discrimination, pay inequality and glass ceilings. Sheree Atcheson, global director of diversity, equity and inclusion at employee success platform, Peakon, sees the value in identifying colleagues who you know will stand in solidarity with you.
"I think it’s important to engage if you have team leaders that you can trust who are in the middle. Maybe they’re not in the decision-making pools but they’re middle management or they have the ability to influence and engage those people," she says. "So share openly with someone that you trust – what’s going on, what you don’t like, why you don’t like it, why your company shouldn’t be doing those kinds of things – and then utilise that relationship to help influence and provide some sort of protection for yourself at the same time."
Taking practical steps
Standing confidently in your decision to propose changes that could penetrate the fabric of an organisation can be approached in a multitude of ways depending on your professional standing and the type of environment that currently exists at your workplace. For Year 6 teacher Stacey*, being the head of English and a member of the senior management team meant that she was able to leverage her senior standing to expand her school’s Black History Month activity. Even still, she felt a sense of unease when training her colleagues on the updated programme.
"I wasn’t sure how [what I was saying] would be taken, especially because I needed to touch on Black Lives Matter which I know can make some people feel quite uncomfortable, so then I started to feel uncomfortable," she explains. "It was the fact that I was standing there as a Black woman who’s had to now almost be the token Black person for Black History Month. But what I realised in that moment is it wasn’t necessarily about me. It was something that was important, not just for young Black children but for children in general, to maintain a positive attitude towards reading.
"I definitely think it’s something that’s going to continue because we started it last year and this year I’ve improved it, so next year it will only get better. Now that I’ve moved up in my role I have a seat at the table so I have more of a say."
There have been multiple studies showing that companies with diverse workforces make more money than those without. Arming yourself with research like this can go a long way when it comes to supporting your argument for a fairer and more inclusive work culture.
"Use facts, use data, use the company’s values and the company’s history. Use its competitors and what they’re doing and how their actions compare with what your organisation is doing. Use exemplary firms so that you can say, ‘This is what the best in our industry is doing, we should emulate them because of this’. All these different things are needed," says Opaneye. "You need to target the heartstrings. You need to target the financial benefits of diversity as well as the corporate benefits."
There’s no denying the societal shift we’re experiencing when it comes to people’s attitudes towards groups that have historically been discriminated against at work. More of us are acknowledging the systemic barriers that underrepresented voices have long tried to abolish, as well as our own biases, and more is being done to dismantle these structures. It’s a fight that relies on the support of people from all walks of life, whether you’re an entry-level employee or at the helm of a company. So are you going to be an advocate or an enemy of progress? The time to pick a side is now.