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Let’s talk: Making the uncomfortable comfortable

The first half of 2018 found me training graduate hires from all over the globe in our graduate training program: ThoughtWorks University. The 5-week training program runs in our Xi'an (China) and Pune (India) offices. It prepares our graduate hires for life as a consultant.

The role of the trainer is both rewarding and challenging. It is true that teaching others provides opportunities for the teacher to learn too. Little did I realise that a conversation with one of my trainees would do exactly that. It led to my acceptance of a part of me that I have been hiding. It also created an urge for me to advocate for more discussions on diversity.

ThoughtWorks University Trainers

The conversation

Her: Hey Mayase, do you have a minute?
Me: Yeah sure, I could use a distraction from replying to this email
Her: I have been wanting to talk to you since the first day. I wanted to tell you that seeing you here has comforted me.
Me: Ooh (a hesitant) Thank you, am glad.
Her: I love seeing women of colour here, let's have dinner and talk more. I would love to hear your story.
Me: (Excited) Yes sure let me know when.

The reality check

Someone else came to me and said they wanted to have lunch with me and hear my story. What story I wondered. I am an Australian of African heritage. Was that a reason to share my story?

I was suddenly fearful of what this meant. I never imagined that one day I would be proud of being a woman of colour in the workplace.

For most of my professional life, I have worked hard to not focus on the racial part of me. Working in Australia, I stand out because of my race. I was also usually the only person of African heritage in the organisation. I did everything I could to not stand out because of it. All I wanted was to go to work, head down, do the best job I could, and get rewarded for it. The more I thought about identifying as a woman of colour the more it terrified me. It meant I would have to stop trying to be invisible, or to try to blend in. I know now that I was never invisible. I was the brown bear in the room. I figured if I identified myself as the brown bear, then I would be calling out that I was different. I didn’t want to be different, but I owed it to myself to own this part of me and know that different doesn’t mean bad.

If I was different and it was ok, then why did it feel like a burden to acknowledge it? For one, I felt the pressure of speaking for women of colour when mine was only part of the story. How do we act around the brown bear in the room Mayase? I am afraid I don't know. I can tell you from my experience, what not to do. Is that enough? Was I a fraud for not knowing? Shouldn't I as a person of colour know the answers? I do not want to affect anyone else’s chances because of my not knowing how to change my industry. I found wisdom from a female leader who said ‘you don't need to know the answers to this. It is not your job to educate everyone. That burden is not yours to carry’. I understood, but it still weighs heavy on my heart. I am the example of women like me all over the world, but cannot be the voice of them all.

I discovered many of us are uncomfortable talking about diversity. Be it race, gender, culture, etc., because we don't know what to say about it. Some of us don't want to expose ourselves as douche bags. But in not talking about it we all fail to the right the wrongs that continue to shroud our industry and society. The truth is, even minorities get tired/frustrated about talks on minorities. Why can't we move on? Our world is now equal why keep harping on about it? But we know it's not true. Every day prejudice reminds us of the aftershocks of the lack of diversity.

The silence of others makes it hard to discuss diversity. I couldn't always share my story for fear of disturbing the silent ones. Those that switched off at any hint of the diversity topic. Someone told me they were not into identity politics. They did not focus on this in the workplace. Everyone was the same to them. I guess it's easier not to get into identity politics when you are the dominant race/gender.

Then there is the danger zone of using the race or gender card. I did not want to be that person seen as playing the race or gender card when I was not. I had these things counting against me, but it was not going to be an excuse for not being exceptional at what am doing. I worked 200% to make sure that those were not the things that played on people's minds. Even though deep down I knew these aspects were always in play.

Then there is the big question of who can talk about diversity? Is it only minorities? Can someone from a dominant race/gender/social & economic talk? I say, be an ally. Don't speak on behalf of others but listen and believe when someone tells you their story.

Others feel we have talked about this for so long. I hear things like "Let's make real change happen. Enough talk."  I agree that we need to act, but action stems from acknowledging and accepting the brown bear in the room.

The acceptance

Feeling terrified of my diversity, made me realise that I was diminishing the light I can shine. By embracing this part of me, I allow more people like me to take this journey. Who knew an acknowledgment of a part of me I had been hiding would bring me confidence. It has allowed me to own who I am and accept my place in the Technology Industry.  

It finally rang true to me that my presence in the technology world means more than another person in Tech. It gives courage to those with some kind of otherness that this industry is theirs as well. I see myself and future generations facing this industry with confidence.

Workplaces should work towards making it safe for people to share their experiences. We must remain conscious of those around us, to overcome the frustration, fear, and apathy about the brown bear in the room.

At ThoughtWorks our open culture allows people to come forward and express their varied experience. Through our social justice pillar, we strive to create a positive social change. ThoughtWorks has prioritised growing other aspects of diversity not only gender. They acknowledge there is more they need to do and are not shying away from the challenge.

Workplaces must encourage more people to open up and share their discomfort and fears. Only then can we have conversations that are inclusive and begin to address these fears. Diverse workspaces will come when we become comfortable sharing the uncomfortable.