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Inclusion matters: [Part 2] Common inclusion problems

This is the second part of our three part series on inclusivity. View part one here

Inclusion is not straightforward; it requires a lot of compassion and effort. I once worked on a team where all seven of us were of different nationalities and mother tongues. It wasn’t easy – we would often get lost in translation or misunderstand certain cultural behaviors, but it was one of the highest-performing teams I’ve worked with. As long as everyone on a team is aware of inclusion and has an open heart and mind, it can work. However, many times we had to admit to being wrong and learn how to work better together. 

Often if we aren’t affected by inclusion problems, we may not even notice their presence. Learning more about different people’s perspectives can help us to broaden our understanding, too.

In this post, I want to share my experiences and some of the most common inclusivity problems. This collection of stories comes from a variety of different work environments. 

The examples mentioned in this blog post may be painful to some, however, I want to share  them in hope that we will be better equipped to identify them and help others. As Brene Brown has said, “To not have the conversations because they make you uncomfortable is the definition of privilege.” I spoke more about privilege in Inclusion Matters: [Part 1] Diversity matters and in this part we’ll take a look at some uncomfortable examples. 

If the following occurrences are common in your workplace, they’re a sign of a non-inclusive environment. 

Adding extra effort to earn respect if you’re marginalized

I have often been the only woman on a team or at a company-wide meeting. Many times I felt like I had to convince others of my worth because they didn't take me seriously.

One time, a female colleague and I went to a meeting on API design where it was just us and two men presenting because no other colleagues could join. We had to convince them to proceed with the meeting despite the other colleagues not being there. It was obvious they didn’t think we were “technical” enough for this (how gender defines this so clearly is still a mystery to me). Spoiler alert: even though the overall mood was tense at the beginning, the meeting ended up going well and the two men changed their stances when we questioned their API solution.

Yellow Chairs

A colleague gave me another example of people having to work to earn respect. Her and I were sharing stories on how we cope with standing out at male-dominated tech meetings and she shared a trick that always works: she took out glasses from her pocket, put them on, and said,  “Look, now I’m convincing.” I was dumbfounded. She explained, “Somehow if women have glasses on, they’re more likely to be listened to. I have perfect vision, but I learned through experience that just by adding the glasses I look like someone who knows what they’re talking about.”

This story helped me realize that at times I have received certain looks if I dress differently; ultimately, I just want to be listened to and respected at work. I don't want to hear comments about how I look or dress. As a result, at most workplaces in tech I choose the simplest casual clothes to wear which don’t stand out, even though I’m more relaxed during the weekend or in some more balanced work environments. That’s exactly why we end up not bringing our whole selves to work, and not being able to benefit from diversity as we start to adjust ourselves to fit in and be more like the rest. Innovation is hindered in environments where everyone fits into a certain standard.

The “innocent” jokes

Speaking of being a non-male in a tech company, let’s mention the occasional “jokes”…

One time I was at a meeting and before the presenter even started to project the slides, the lights were dimmed and one of the attendees said, “Oh, what a romantic atmosphere.” Meanwhile, the man sitting next to me elbowed me and audibly said to me, “Don’t you feel romantic here?” I kept a straight face and ignored the remark. Some of the readers would consider this a possible sexual harassment case. I’d say it’s still an inclusion problem: it’s exclusionary behavior, and it’s tolerated as an “innocent” joke that I should simply accept. Nobody said a word apart from a few laughing from this “witty” remark.

These “innocent” jokes that some tend to make can really add up. Multiple times I’ve been in a situation where after being “teased” or hearing inappropriate jokes, I spoke back. I said that it’s not appropriate and got the frequent response of, “Oh, cheer up. It’s just a joke. It’s my sense of humor!” Hmmm, so maybe I just have no sense of humor? Well, for me, “Computers are like women – cannot be understood easily” is not too funny. It can be difficult as an individual to stand up and highlight that these comments are unacceptable, especially if you’re in the demographic under attack. It’s sad when a male colleague decides they have to announce to other males in the group that “Women are always right, don’t get yourself into trouble.” It’s even sadder when it comes from someone who themselves could be on the receiving end of unacceptable comments. The “Don’t go there, boys will be boys” line from a non-male colleague, is an example. This is not helping us to make environments more inclusive. We should not divide people but connect them.

We do have differences. Not only in our gender, race, religion, looks, etc. We have outspoken people, some are quiet, some are more social, others are less. The language and actions the majority uses can make you feel more or less included.

There are many more inclusion problems in our daily life that I did not mention here. Stay open-minded (and hearted) to spot them.

In the next post, I will give some tips on what we can do to make the inclusion better, whilst not losing our authenticity.

Disclaimer: The statements and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the positions of Thoughtworks.

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