Diversity and Inclusion – There’s more to people than we see
Diversity and Inclusion isn’t just about celebrating today’s prevailing liberal mindset. It’s also about having an understanding of what shaped the people we are today.
I was 12 years old when the “Don’t Die of Ignorance” leaflet dropped through the letterbox of our family home. The TV ad was an ominous horror-movie featuring the words “AIDS” being chiselled out of a tombstone”. I was terrified.
The rhetoric of the time was unforgiving. I knew who I was growing up to be and I knew I had to hide it. People like me were publicly vilified and the tombstone campaign confirmed that my ‘condition’ was terminal.
I didn’t know what my friends or family thought about gay people. I couldn’t talk about it for fear of being exposed. I did everything I could not to be found out. I learnt not to express myself authentically. I withdrew from the relationships that nurtured me.
Attitudes in this country have progressed considerably. The bigoted voices that were once given airtime in the UK are rarely given a voice in mainstream media. Perhaps they have died out completely.
It would be easy to think there are no longer barriers to LGBTQ+ people in the workplace. Many businesses have admirable policies that promote Diversity & Inclusion. D&I is on the board and there is much to celebrate.
Yet every Monday morning I experience anxiety about going to work. I find myself in meetings thinking, do I have a right to be here? Am I going to be found out? Even though all the evidence points to the contrary, I’m worried I’m going to mess it up.
Like many leaders, gay or otherwise, I keep my anxieties hidden (mostly) even though I’d encourage others to share theirs. Just as I kept my identity firmly locked away as a young adult, so I fear that exposing my shortcomings today will have negative consequences. And that’s so completely at odds with what I rationally believe and espouse.
I’ve never had therapy to unpack the years I lived in fear of my own sexuality. But I can say with relative certainty that internalising my feelings until I was in my 20s and my work-based anxiety are not unrelated. Would I experience the same fears and anxieties today if I’d been a straight boy growing up in the heteronormative 1980s?
On the surface, you could think that everyone has equality of opportunity in the British workplace. We’ve come a long way to undoing the prejudice of the past. But it’ll take a few more years before the LGBTQ+ community are truly level-pegging. We have to accept that people are shaped by their early experiences and one individual’s perception of what they are entitled to or capable of will be different to another’s, even though they are technically, equally qualified. The policies are there but the psychology will take a while to catch up.
Part of Diversity and Inclusion is the ability to accept and respect that there’s more to people than we see. To reserve judgment, give people the benefit of the doubt and support them to grow. Because the more we do to build self-belief in others, the more they build belief in themselves and the more equal opportunities become.
I suspect there are some workplaces in the UK where heteronormative attitudes still prevail. And perhaps it’s true to say that gay men are more accepted than some other groups in the LGBTQ+ community. But I’m convinced we’re on the right trajectory. The fact that I can write this and for my voice to be given a platform by my employer says it all.