This is the last part of post series on inclusion. The first post is Inclusion Matters: [Part 1] Diversity matters, while the middle part is Inclusion Matters: [Part 2] Common Inclusion problems.
When we speak of inclusion, often we can be rather torn on what we could do: how do we create more inclusive environments yet don’t lose our authenticity?
Forget the labels - just aim to be human
Labeling an environment inclusive won’t make it be it. Sometimes labels can do way more harm than good. It’s a continuous daily effort of aiming to have our behaviors inclusive: sometimes we fail, but as long as we keep learning – it’s going in the right direction. Labeling something a certain way may even discourage our efforts.
My Canadian colleague told me a story about how at their university (the same university canceled free yoga classes over cultural appropriation) there was a so-called “inclusive room” where you could feel safe. Spaces for marginalized people can be a great initiative to encourage a safe place to discuss various topics. They are even necessary. However, labelling something an “inclusive room” is not great if it means that white people were not allowed to enter it and it has a label of “inclusive room” on it. How can a space be called an “inclusive room” if it’s excluding people? Wording matters, too.
What I’d like to add here is that I do not believe in reverse racism. As we know: RACISM = PREJUDICE + POWER. When people do not have power - their attempts to have their own rules often get torn down, while for others it is not. A space for marginalized people is a great idea - just when we label it, maybe we could be more specific and not use just “inclusion room”. This can be used even against the marginalized group (and is often in politics).
Also, often companies label themselves as “inclusive”, but it can turn into an excuse or a conversation stopper when someone questions their non-inclusive behaviours. “Of course, yes, we’re an inclusive company, how could you even question that?”.
However, the balance here can be rather tough. With some of the concepts like free speech, there is a lot of misuse. Especially in recent politics, we’ve seen open racism “excused” by the free speech concept. If sometimes labels like this are confusing – let’s just drop them and aim to be kind to each other, and maybe we should just aim to… be human?
As in one article in German if saying “Asian food” is racist there is this part: For everyone who still thinks this is all exaggerated, there is nothing you can say nowadays in Germany – for those Vicky has a message:
“It is not that you cannot say anything anymore – you are able to say nearly everything. The question is solely whether you want to say something that keeps racism alive. If you want to carry the responsibility of what you just said – and whether you understand what you are talking about. Or would you rather smash the existing structures?”
When I talk about forgetting the labels and being human, we have to remember our privilege, too. A lot of people may feel like they are inclusive because they simply believe everyone is equal and have the same opportunities as them. This is unfortunately not the case. An example could be some men not believing that there is a wage gap issue between genders. It’s not because they have bad intentions, it’s just that privilege helps a lot to reach the wanted results, so it’s sometimes forgotten that a different person in their situation doing the same actions could have obtained a different result. Did you know that black kids are more likely to get arrested at school? Let’s not forget that acting human means also acknowledging the differences in power & privilege, too, and helping out others in need even if they are different from us.
Aiming to act human is as complex as human beings are. Sometimes us behaving in the spirit of inclusion can make us overlook the fact that the person we are talking to feels attacked by all this and shuts us down. It’s important for us to be attentive, understand that change is not immediate, and have some patience. Ease it on others when it comes to inclusion: it’s a journey that requires investment (resources & time), patience, and empathy. In addition, do not forget the privilege you may be having - we do not know what the other person is facing, so let’s assume less, and listen with open hearts more.
Acknowledge, learn, and spread awareness on biases
We may not notice inclusion problems or know how we can actually help due to lack of knowledge on it. As a first step, we should keep learning more about biases that are all around us. We have our own point of view, our perspective, but it is not the only one.
What if I told you that the world was built taking men as default? Look at the car crash dummy used in car testing - it’s based on a male body. As a result, statistically, women are more likely to get injured in car crashes because of this fact. And, what about the seat belt? Did the creators think of breasts or pregnant women? Half of the population is not taken into account.
Automotive industries are not the only field where initial products were built taking men as a default for testing. An eye-opening introduction to a “man’s world” for me was 99 percent invisible podcast with Caroline Criado Perez who authored a super interesting book Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men. A lot of reviews for this book go with the lines “It makes so much sense, I finally feel like I’m not going crazy and it actually is an unfair world.”
Many companies are getting more inclusive (there was a female body car crash dummy introduced, too), but it may take quite some time to improve.
Realizing that it is a biased world we live in is the first step, then looking at the data can help, too - what data is shaping our perspective? Let’s gather more data, aim for better understanding, and include people in the process. There are so many more stories than we know of.
In the times of talks about AI, data is the power that we have to treat responsibly. One of the most impressive examples of making a more inclusive AI is IVOW which aims to spread cultural awareness by story telling.
Lend your privilege - be an ally
Gender, age, race are some diversity factors we cannot really change. Also, there are some different dimension diversity factors which are more of our choices like our work roles… All these factors have different levels of pain in oppression, and I’d like to bring a general awareness on diversity & inclusion possible improvements.
When there is one marginalized person in a meeting and there are inappropriate jokes made by someone – lend your privilege to the marginalized, especially being from the group who joked. Some of us are more privileged than others and by taking the same actions than others we can get better results. Read more about the definition of privilege in the first part of this article series Inclusion Matters: [Part 1] Diversity matters. Speak up against the jokes like that. Because sometimes, however sad this sounds, people may not hear the victim’s voice, especially when there are biases like groupthink involved, or, games of power. We need to lend our privilege to create a more accepting environment where people are not being laughed at, where people feel safe and happy being themselves. Jokes should not push people down, it’s not a joke if it does – it’s a mean comment. Even if it does not touch us – we should help others learn that it’s not acceptable.
Often a marginalized person speaking up against a joke may cause them to be laughed at even more – labeled as sensitive, touchy, or just “hurt”. Another person telling that this was not okay can make a big impact. Be an ally.
Also, we should support others being from the same group as well. If someone is getting excluded, but you are included - use your privilege to make a change. In tech I often see that some non-male colleagues learn to fight for themselves, but do not support other non-males. There is an old quote by H. L. Mencken saying that “On one issue, at least, men and women agree: they both distrust women.”
I do not think it should be this way, we should work together for a more inclusive world. We need more empathetic leadership.
Create a safe and open environment
This can be a hard one for many companies even if they would not admit it. If there are silos in the company - it’s the first thing to break. Only collaborative teams can work well together. There are already many possible biases between different roles. Even if this is a very different dimension than marginalized people, we also need to respect the variety of roles. For example, sometimes working in one team collaboratively we may consider being in a tribe while other people in the same company are different: us against them (“We should not tell it to the testing department”. “Innocent” jokes may creep in as well.).
Everyone should feel heard and safe to speak out their concerns. Often the bigger the company is the less there is a feeling that your opinion matters. When you are different from others, you already stand out – many challenges that come with that. If within the company others don’t respect you, too – that can be the worst feeling in the world. Respect opinions, be more careful about what you say to others and make sure to build safety so that everyone feels okay to express their thoughts. Even if you disagree with them, remember:
We all are just trying to do the best job we can, and we create the best products working together, not against each other.
Empathize & include consciously
There are reasons why someone may act in a certain way. My friend from Tunisia at the start of getting to know each other would often annoy me with her rebelliousness: aiming to express her opinion in every possible way, making sure her point was heard even if not always it was correct or based on any arguments. She would often over-communicate. I found it unnecessary, and overdone. I struggled to include her more to the events or even team activities. Luckily after some time, we did get way closer and become very good friends. After hearing her story I realized how wrong I was. When growing up in Tunisia, my friend was not even allowed to ride a bicycle as it was considered to be “too sexy” for a woman. Not to mention wearing shorter skirts or going out alone when it’s dark. She did not like what society was pushing on her. She rebelled. Her aunts would go to her parents to tell them about their “mischievous” daughter’s dress style.
A lot of things that are not allowed in Tunisia are considered completely normal in Europe. There is no need to fight for riding a bicycle or prove that you can do it. However, she still had the rebel mindset and sometimes felt she needs to fight to be heard, respected, and given a chance to get what she wants.
I understood that it’s not something I should take personally. It’s coming from the upbringing, I could just help her grow and support her in different kinds of challenges that were there.
The lesson I took from this was that instead of excluding people we should try to include them. Consciously. What if we make sure to invite the person we have the most friction with firstly for lunch? In those cases, we especially need to connect rather than disconnect.
Create & promote balanced diverse environments
A lot of times I took the fact that I was the only woman as something that just was the way it was in a team or in general in a tech field. When I got to work in a balanced team, the difference was enormous. Suddenly some jokes were not accepted and I was not the only one feeling that. This gave some extra power and could help drive the change in the team’s mindset.
What is more, my role also is often a solo role. I work as a Quality Analyst. I love collaborating with all the different roles, but sometimes it can do such a wonder to have another Quality Analyst even if not in the team, but in the company to talk to - it’s important to share the knowledge, easier to tackle some challenges analyzing them from the side, and have the support. Having some communities for certain roles can help a lot. In my current company, we have some valuable groups. For example, I’m a part of the QA community or senior women in tech groups.
Do a variety of team-building events
Some people eat meat, some don’t. Some drink alcohol, some don’t. Some people like an active pastime, others don’t. Some are completely fine to meet after work for dinner, while others would rather have breakfast.
In my team, we aim to find a compromise. Team building events matter - it diminishes the differences and improves working together so much. We rotate the organizer (if a person is okay to do so, of course), ask for suggestions/preferences, and try to accommodate different needs. It may not be possible that everyone attends each event, but we have to give opportunities and chances for everyone to join whenever they prefer.
Diversity is a must in the tech (and not only) world. With that, we can make more accessible, inclusive, human-friendly products. However, it’s not enough to just be diverse. We need to understand how to be more inclusive, too.
Each person has their authenticity. Their own powers, skills, and abilities. The collaboration and inclusion turn a bunch of great diverse individuals into a respectful, unique, open-minded (and open-hearted) team working together for the same purpose.
You are the creator of the environment you work in. You can make a huge difference by being more proactive, fair, and inclusive. And, the ones who are not as inclusive also can learn - they may not know better. Show them an example. It’s not enough to say to a person to “be bold” or “lean in” - it’s just not fair to do that when some have way different conditions than we do. We all have to work for a better fairer environments. Ease the pain of others. Be human.
Embrace & respect the differences - that is where the power of high-performing teams lays.