A diversity and inclusion tutorial from three diversity anti-heroes

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HR professionals often get told how to do their jobs better by non-HR professionals. If you speak to a diversity and inclusion specialist, they will probably tell you that they experience this phenomenon tenfold. 

Diversity and inclusion can be an emotive business issue because everyone has a personal connection to some aspect of diversity: you might be a woman in male dominated industry, have a sibling who identifies as transgender, hold strong faith beliefs, or be the only senior executive in the boardroom without a degree. Often because of personal experiences, people feel they know the best way to make their workplace more diverse and inclusive. The reality is, however, that it’s very easy for things to go awry. For this reason, it’s important to reflect on big and sometimes controversial diversity and inclusion issues carefully; as well as genuinely listen to people with strong views who we might disagree with on a personal level.

Kim Davis, Bahar Mustafa and Matt Damon have all been making diversity and inclusion headlines for the wrong reasons lately. But what can we learn from these three purported diversity anti-heroes? 

Kim Davis

Who is she?

Kim Davis is the US County Clerk for Rowan County, Kentucky. She rose to public prominence following the US Supreme Court’s ruling that same-sex marriage was a constitutional right in June 2015, when she refused to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples on the grounds of her Christian beliefs. 

What can we learn from her?

However strongly one may disagree with Davis’ stance on same-sex marriage - be that on personal moral grounds or from a pure rule-of-law perspective - it is important to acknowledge that her faith is an integral part of how she identifies herself. 

Her beliefs are so deeply held that she has been prepared to face public ridicule, jail time and the jeopardising of her future career prospects. It will never be acceptable to refuse to provide a public service to someone on the grounds of their sexual orientation, faith or any other protected characteristic in the UK. It is, however, right to acknowledge that faith is an equally important part of someone’s identity as any other characteristic, born or acquired. Failing to accept the significance of faith as a component of identity limits our ability to foster a truly inclusive workplace and society as a whole.

Bahar Mustafa

Who is she?

Bahar Mustafa is the student union Welfare and Diversity Officer for Goldsmith’s, University of London. She made headlines after requesting white people and men did not attend an event for BME students, and caused a media storm after using the hash tag #KillAllWhiteMen. 

What can we learn from her?

There is little need to comment on the poor taste of Mustafa’s social media activity and whilst she could evidently benefit from guidance on framing her communications, she is right about one thing: she reminds us that the need for private spaces for diverse groups is valid. Support from ‘allies’ e.g. straight people who champion LGBT rights, or men who help drive gender equality, is essential to move the dial on diversity and inclusion. Failure to engage with allies means diversity and inclusion efforts will be preaching only to the converted. However, there will be times when diverse groups need to, and feel more comfortable to, discuss issues which affect them privately. This should be supported and encouraged where needed. 

Matt Damon

Who is he?

Matt Damon is an American actor, known for his leading roles in films like Good Will Hunting, Saving Private Ryan and The Bourne Supremacy. He was accused of ‘whitesplaining’ and ‘mansplaining’ after telling a black female producer how to improve diversity in the film making industry. 

What can we learn from him?

Getting diversity and inclusion right is not straightforward. People, companies and even government bodies will get things wrong on occasion. It is important to recognise positive intent when people engage on diversity and inclusion and respect that everyone has their own learning curve; some steeper than others. Men can be very apprehensive about discussing gender diversity for fear of saying the wrong thing, in the same way straight people can feel nervous broaching the topic of LGBT inclusion or white people can be when discussing race. The key to progress, however, is getting people talking about diversity and inclusion issues and gradually building knowledge, understanding and comfort over time. For this to work, we sometimes need to offer people a little reprieve if they don’t quite say the right thing.

Perhaps above all else it is important to remember than nobody ever changed their mind about something simply because someone told them to. Warren Buffet once said: ‘Someone is sitting in the shade today because someone planted a tree a long time ago’. This reminds us that diversity and inclusion is a change process that can take time, but the investment is one which does return dividends. 

Benjamin Fletcher is HR Business Partner at QBE Insurance with responsibility for diversity and inclusion. In his previous role at Moody's he Co-Chaired the LGBT & Allies Network and helped secure Moody's entry in the Stonewall top 100 employers for LGBT workers in 2015.


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