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Encouraging diversity in the workplace

Have you ever been tested for chemicals when you go through airport security? If you asked me, a white female, the answer would be yes. If you asked my friend, Mohammed, he'd also say yes.

So, we have the same experience… right?

Now, if you asked me “how often?,” I'd say “randomly, every now and then.” But if you asked Mohammed, his answer would likely be “yes, every time”.

The cause of this is bias, either conscious or unconscious.

Now, picture the group conversation, where someone is moaning about the delay at airport security and everyone is nodding sagely.

We've all been there, right?

Well, not necessarily. In reality, there’s a big difference between possibility and frequency.

Some people experience these issues far more than others, and the reason why is often as simple as appearance.

This is just one example of how we all live in different worlds and face different biases.

Sometimes, we think we understand the experience of others because 'we've all been there'. But, in reality, we often don’t.

I was recently honoured to meet Laura Liswood. Laura is Secretary General of the Council of Women World Leaders and the author of a book I'd recommend, The Loudest Duck

Pictured: Laura Liswood (left), Karina Keisler (right)

Laura also happens to be a 'Diversity Queen' and her list of credentials and achievements is both impressive and very long.

Among them, Laura is the oldest female mountain bike police officer in the United States and a Sergeant in the Washington D.C. Metropolitan Police Department.

When we spoke, Laura used this analogy to highlight the biases that exist, the assumptions people make and how sometimes we don't fully consider these biases because we assume 'we've all been there'.

She talked about hailing a cab and being passed by. It happens to white females in Washington D.C. apparently. In other words, it’s possible. Ask the Hispanic or black neighbour, she said, and they'll tell you it happens all the time. In other words, it’s not just possible, but frequent.

Because of bias.

Diversity in the workplace

Laura's view (one I support) is that if we truly want to engender cognitive diversity in the workplace, we need to be honest with ourselves about our biases, and make an effort to put them aside. We need to acknowledge the differences we all bring to work and ensure an even playing field, so we can take full advantage of diversity.

Here are a few ideas that are easily implemented:

  • Invite participation in your meetings. Don't assume everyone will be comfortable speaking freely without notice. Next time you have a team meeting, make an effort to seek out different views. Not just the usual suspects you often hear from without too much prodding. Give the team ample warning that you're going to call on each of them, so those who need it have time to prepare and confidently participate.
  • If you walk the floor, don't be selective. Many of us gravitate to those colleagues we are most familiar with. Make an effort to talk to those you don't spend a lot of time with. Give them the same opportunity as the rest of the team. You are guaranteed to learn something.
  • If you want to bond with your team, choose an activity that is inclusive. Not everyone drinks and not everyone can participate in after hours activities at short notice. If you go out for drinks after work, make sure you make yourself available to the rest of the team through other activities. Lunch? Morning tea?

One incredibly eye-opening activity my team participated in at NBN Co was a 'diversity walk'. Everyone is given an identity. Keep it real… a single mum, someone who works from home every Wednesday due to a fixed commitment, a married Muslim man, a person who suffers anxiety, a working parent, a gay man with partner and child, a single grad, etc.

Then, everyone lines up next to each other. Various scenarios are read out and, if you are able to participate, you step forward. If not, you step back. Make sure the scenarios are exactly like those you'd expect in a workplace. For example, you have a team offsite and everyone is expected to present; you are asked to travel at short notice; family day in the office; drinks at short notice; etc. The exercise quickly demonstrates just how 'everyday events' impact each of us differently and perhaps how exclusive some of our 'team activities' can be.

Please share your thoughts and ideas – I'd love to hear them.

Diversity walk identity examples

Person 1)

A person with a minor disability who finds standing for long periods of time and walking long distances difficult.

Things to consider (generalisations):

  • You may find it difficult to participate in some physical activities
  • Offsite client and training locations/events need to have appropriate access
  • Travel to other locations or interstate travelling is difficult without forward planning


Person 2)

A person who has to pick up children every day by 5pm.

Things to consider (generalisations):

  • You will not be able to work past 4:30pm in the office, but may work from home at the end of the day
  • You prefer to start work earlier
  • You prefer not to work weekends or be away for work on weekends
  • You may not have a large support network
  • You may not be able to attend after-work functions

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