When we speak of inclusion, often we can be rather torn on what we could do: how do we create more inclusive environments without compromising our authenticity?
Forget the labels – just aim to be humanLabeling an environment as inclusive won’t make it so. Sometimes labels can do way more harm than good. It's a continuous daily effort of aiming to cultivate inclusive behavior: sometimes we fail, but as long as we keep learning – it’s heading 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, labeling something an “inclusive room” is not great if it means that white people weren’t allowed to enter while having the label of an “inclusive room.”. 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 don't have power, their attempts to have a voice often get silenced or discouraged; the opposite typically occurs for those in power. Creating a space for marginalized people is a great idea, we just need to exercise caution in how it's labeled. Perhaps not calling it an "inclusion room" and instead using more specific language. Sometimes these sort of scenarios backfire and can be used against the marginalized group, as is often seen in politics.
Also, companies often label themselves as “inclusive,” but use it as an excuse or a conversation stopper when someone questions their non-inclusive behaviours: “Of course we’re an inclusive company, how could you even question that?”
However, the balance here can be rather tough. With a concept like free speech, there’s a lot of misuse. Especially in recent politics, we’ve seen open racism “excused” as free speech. If labels are sometimes confusing, maybe we should consider dropping them in general. Why not aim to be kind to each other, or better yet, simply aim to be human? This German article saying “Asian food” is racist states:
“For everyone who still thinks this is all exaggerated — that there’s nothing you can say in Germany nowadays — activist Vicky Truong 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 labels and being human, we have to remember our privilege, too. A lot of people may feel like they’re inclusive simply because they believe everyone is equal and has the same opportunities. This is unfortunately not the case. An example could be some men not believing that there’s a wage gap between genders. This isn't necessarily because men have bad intentions, rather privilege helps attain their desired results. On the other hand, women, for example, may do the same work and see completely different results. 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 and privilege, too, and helping others in need even if they’re 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’re talking to feels attacked and shuts us down. It’s important to be attentive, understand that change isn’t immediate, and have patience. Be easy on others when it comes to inclusion: it’s a journey that requires investment (resources and time), patience, and empathy. In addition, do not forget the privilege you have - we don’t know what the other person is facing, so let’s assume less and listen with open hearts more.
Acknowledge, learn, and spread awareness on biasesWe may not notice inclusion problems or know how we can actually help due to a lack of knowledge 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’s not the only one.
What if I told you that the world uses men as the 'default' gender? 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. 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 aren’t 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 a 99 percent invisible podcast with Caroline Criado Perez who authored an interesting book “Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men.” A lot of reviews for this book are along the lines of, “It makes so much sense, I finally feel like I’m not going crazy and it actually is an unfair world.”
Many companies are becoming more inclusive (there was a female body car crash dummy introduced, too), but it may take quite some time to improve.
Realizing that we live in a biased world 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 time of AI, data is a 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 storytelling. Another example is activists raising awareness of biased AI in Brazil.
Lend your privilege – be an allyGender, age, and race are some diversity factors we can’t really change. Also, there are some different dimension diversity factors which are more of our lifestyle choices like our work roles. All these factors have different levels of pain in oppression, and I’d like to raise awareness on possible diversity and inclusion improvements.
When there’s one marginalized person in a meeting and there are inappropriate jokes made by someone, lend your privilege to the marginalized, especially if you belong to the same group as the attacker. Additionally, even if two people (one of privilege, one from a marginalized group) take the same actions and work exactly the same way, it's often the privileged person who comes out ahead (read more about the definition of privilege in the first part of this article series Inclusion Matters: [Part 1] Diversity Matters). Speak up against these jokes. Because sometimes, however sad this sounds, people may not hear the victim’s voice, especially when there are biases like groupthink involved. 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 doesn’t affect us, we should help others understand that it’s not acceptable.
Often a marginalized person speaking up against a joke may cause them to be laughed at even more – being labeled as sensitive, touchy, or just “hurt.” Another person saying that this was not okay can make a big impact. Be an ally.
Also, we should support others 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 don’t support other non-males. There’s an old quote by H. L. Mencken who said, “On one issue, at least, men and women agree: they both distrust women.”
I don’t 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 environmentThis can be a hard one for many companies even if they won’t admit it. If silos exist in a company, they should be 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 that exist. For example, sometimes working collaboratively in one team we may consider being in a tribe while other people in the same company are different: us against them. I have heard sayings like “We should not tell it to the testing department,” - this is how more “innocent” jokes creep in.
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’re different from others, you already stand out and many challenges come with that. If others within the company don’t respect you, either, that can be the worst feeling in the world. Respect opinions, be mindful 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 consciouslyThere are reasons why someone may act in a certain way. At the start of getting to know my friend from Tunisia, she would often annoy me with her rebelliousness: aiming to express her opinion in every possible way, making sure her point was heard even if it wasn’t always correct or based on logic and often over-communicating. I found it unnecessary, and overdone. I struggled to include her more in events or team activities. Luckily after some time, we became very good friends. After hearing her story, I realized how wrong I was. When growing up in Tunisia, my friend wasn’t 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 didn’t like what society was pushing on her, so she rebelled. Her aunts would go to her parents to tell them about their “mischievous” daughter’s way of dressing.
A lot of things that aren’t allowed in Tunisia are considered completely normal in Europe. There’s no need to fight for riding a bicycle or prove that you can do it. However, she still had a rebel mindset and sometimes felt she needed to fight to be heard, respected, and given a chance to get what she wanted.
I understood that I shouldn’t take it personally. It’s coming from her upbringing, so I could just help her grow and support her in the different kinds of challenges she faced.
The lesson I took from this was that instead of excluding people we should try to include them. Consciously. What if we made sure to invite the person with whom we have the most friction to lunch? In those cases, we especially need to connect rather than disconnect.
Create & promote balanced diverse environmentsOftentimes, I thought being the only woman on my team or tech in general was simply “the way it is.” When I finally worked in a gender balanced team, the difference was enormous. Suddenly some jokes weren’t accepted and I wasn’t the only one feeling that way. This helped to drive 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 — if not in the team, in the company — to talk to. It’s great to share the knowledge with another subject matter expert. It helps to tackle some challenges faster by collecting not only ideas, but also support in the implementation. That person may have faced a similar challenge before. Having communities for certain roles can also help a lot. In my current company, we have some valuable groups, such as a QA community or senior women in tech groups.
Do a variety of team-building eventsSome 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 - they diminish difference and improve collaboration 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 for everyone to attend each event, but we have to give opportunities and chances for everyone to join whenever they prefer.
SummaryDiversity is a must in the world, not just for the tech industry. With diversity, 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 own authenticity: their unique powers, skills, and abilities. Collaboration and inclusion can turn a bunch of 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 in which you work. You can make a huge difference by being more proactive, fair, and inclusive. And the ones who aren’t as inclusive can also learn – they simply 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, more fair environment. Ease the pain of others. Be human.
Embrace and respect differences - that is where the power of high-performing teams lies.
Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash