By Anindya Ghosh
To start with, I should clarify that I am not an expert in this topic. What I share here is based on my experiences working across different countries, cultures and contexts.
Late fall 2008 I moved to Toronto from Dubai to join as a mid level manager in a market research consultancy firm. As I started acclimatizing to a whole new world, I was really fascinated by two things – why were people so excited to have a day of 18 degrees in October and the diversity of the team I joined. Our team lead was a person of Caribbean origin, we had team members of Latin American, South Asian and Burmese origins. Few of them were first generation immigrants and as such were not yet fully “North – Americanised”. The diversity of the team really struck me – as I reminisce, it shouldn’t have (let me come back to this later). Although there was diversity in composition there was very little in execution (day to day operations and activities). However, that didn’t strike me as odd.
Fast forward to 2019. I am with a government organization now. As a part of a mandatory training, I came across the phrase diversity is not inclusion for the first time. Diversity can be a snapshot while inclusion must be intentionally practised on a daily basis. The training, in conjunction with my current work environment – helped me appreciate inclusivity and the benefits of it.
The training brought back memories of my experience in Toronto – but I also started questioning why didn’t I realise the dichotomy in Toronto earlier? After all I worked in a diverse group in Dubai (in teams comprising Indians, Pakistanis, Egyptians, Saudis among others). Why did the diversity in Toronto stand out to me? Maybe because in Dubai I was part of the dominant group. The Dubai market research industry was largely led by professionals of Indian origin. Whatever diversity we had was not really by choice. Inclusion was not a necessity let alone embracing it. I was used to doing things my way. However, unwelcome the experience was in Toronto, I was not surprised – because in my mind, the dominant groups’ way was the “normal way”.
From a non-expert perspective, these experiences lead me to a few learnings:
- We always need to be aware of our position and privilege. Chances are, knowingly or unknowingly, we are part of the dominant group in some contexts. Let’s be aware of that and embrace inclusion. This will also make us cognizant of the challenges of being inclusive – and may help us contribute better when we are not part of the dominant narrative.
- In the best case scenario, inclusion is a process and not a flip switch; the moment we say “hey, look at us, we are now inclusive”, we have probably stopped being inclusive.
- its okay to be imperfectly inclusive. It’s a work in progress
Often the focus is on a top-down approach to inclusivity. However, sometimes a bottom up approach might work better. Small changes / practices can be easier to implement. A bottoms-up approach also makes the task of organizational rollout easier / redundant at the later stage. Many well-intentioned initiatives that are started at the top can get lost for the lack of “buy-in” at the middle and lower levels.
For example, we often start our team meetings exchanging stories about favourite books, vacations, childhood TV series or even favorite superheroes. The exchanges help us understand each other a little better. For example, as an immigrant, I get to know about the school days of some of my Caucasian colleagues, how lobster was the staple food in PEI or what’s the most authentic Chinese food. On the other hand, I get to share stories about what’s the equivalent of Christmas (in terms of a celebration) from my culture. While the manifestations are different, we often find commonalities in motivations and values. Better understanding of each other makes it way more seamless in our day to day interactions and is a small step towards workplace inclusivity.
To end with a cliché: inclusivity can only be feasible if it is seen as beneficial rather than an obligation. Otherwise, we may get limited to the symbolism of diversity.
About the Author
Anindya is a market researcher. His role is to listen to people and translate the learnings into actionable insights for key decision makers. Over the last 15 years, Anindya has worked with multiple organizations (public and private sector) across countries and regions.