Updated: May 15, 2022
They entered the room in twos or threes, eyes downcast; they didn’t just choose the back row, they dragged their chairs until they were physically touching the back wall. Plonking themselves onto plastic chairs, they crossed their arms defensively across yellow high vis vests, one guy pulling his sunglasses down over his eyes in his quest for invisibility. It felt tense as I waded into the viscous reluctance in the room, preparing to break the ice with the audience.
When people come to a workshop on diversity and either it isn’t their usual dinner table conversation, or they believe they’re about to be targeted due to their demographic, they tend to be nervous. Or resistant. They start playing the clown quickly. And talk a lot. Or cross their arms and pull their shades down; anything to create a barrier between themselves and whatever the next few hours brings their way.
And of course, audiences are varied; some are C Suite and a bit ambivalent because they’re largely white guys, some are from marginalised groups and are excited to see the company taking this step. However, if you’re the only woman, brown/black skinned, gay or disabled person in one of these workshops, it can also be confronting; everyone thinking about you, your history, your challenges and it can make you feel more ‘other’ than ever. Some people are willing to share their personal experiences, which of course, delivers the incredible ‘aha!’ moment in which colleagues’ blinkers are opened another fraction to the experiences of different groups in the world. Some people would rather put their hands in a toaster than speak up about their personal lives; how it feels when they aren’t invited in, or when they’re followed around shops because they have brown skin, or asked to take the notes or make the tea as the only woman in the executive team. One Asian guy became irate when I put up quotes from his colleagues of their experience of racist comments from within the company, he just flat out refused to believe it had happened. I asked the rest of the room (who were white) if they had overheard any similar examples in this workplace, slowly every hand went up. It was a powerful moment as he realised that it was happening, just not within his earshot.
A lot of my clients are traditionally masculine industries who are doing the hard yards now on making their environment inclusive for the diversity they are keen to attract. At times, the audience is 80-100% male. And very white. Some come in apologetically; ‘we’re the male, pale and stale ones, we know we need to go’, others have assessed inclusion work as an existential threat ‘this PC stuff has just gone too far, us men have no place in the world anymore’ even though the only woman in their building is known as the office girl. Having told them it is fine to ask anything respectfully and that there is no need to try to be PC, there are some clanger moments. One guy interrupted me as we were talking about gender to declare ‘look, men are men and women are women. To be honest, when I see a woman at work I check out her tits, arse and face and decide whether I want to talk to her’. Cue sharp intakes of breath and multiple sets of eyes inspecting the carpet pattern with great interest. Tits-and-arse guy, as he is henceforth known as, became one of my firm favourites and I often use him as an example of why it’s rarely useful to make fixed judgements – if I’d just heard him say that and didn’t spend any further time getting to know him, I suspect I wouldn't like him much. Same as the person who told me they use the term faggot all the time justifying that it doesn’t mean anything, "it’s just a word". Or the one who calls their colleague a ‘black bastard’ but "it’s ok because he calls me ‘white bastard'". We make judgement calls very quickly, especially in a more socially conscious society, the extension of which has been the emergence of new concepts such as cancel culture and wokeness. An important part of inclusion work is leaning in to the discomfort of views it would be much easier to just cancel, thereby creating opportunity to discuss, learn about and tussle with alternative ways of looking at things.
When tits-and-arse guy made that comment, the room went very quiet. As a facilitator, you’ve got to figure out whether the greatest impact will come from speaking or keeping your trap shut. On this occasion the latter seemed more impactful and the silence was heavy. Eventually a woman from the executive team turned around, looked him in the eye and said ‘I am so disappointed that you assess me in that way before knowing what value I might bring to your world’. To his credit, he did look rather shamefaced and seemed to realise his workplace filter might need replacing. Tits-and-arse guy delivered other thought provoking moments too. During discussions on raising emotionally intelligent children who will be better equipped to navigate diversity, he explained, with some emotion, that his Dad had never once said he loved him and that he himself was working hard on showing his grandchildren affection that hadn’t been modelled for him. Everyone has a story, tapping into and empathising with those stories builds trust and helps those defensive walls crumble away.
Tits-and-arse guy hung around at the end; having had numerous aha moments in which his eyes had been opened to the experience of others, he seemed to want more interaction. Wishing me all the best and thanking me for having such real conversations with them, he commented ‘You must have lots of work with all this Black Lives Matter stuff, I hope it goes well for you’. I thanked him for his honesty during the session and as he left, he smiled and said ‘all lives matter though eh?’. Work in progress. Like all of us.