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Mental Health, Diversity and Intersectionality – Achieving Genuine Inclusion in Organisations

By Tasha Broomhall

We don’t like to think of ourselves as racist, homophobic, sexist, or ableist. It’s uncomfortable to think of ourselves in that way. But given the fact that there is still so much exclusion in our society, in our workplaces and in our services, some of us must be.

As uncomfortable as this is to admit about ourselves, it’s not as uncomfortable as it is for the people who are on the receiving end of that prejudice. We need to be able to sit with that discomfort for a little bit, reflect on it, learn, and then hopefully, we can move forward together.

If we haven’t had firsthand experience of the various barriers, both invisible and visible, that maintain exclusion in our communities and workplaces, it is incumbent on us to learn, to seek the information, to understand those barriers so that we can do better.

Do the best you can, until you know better. And then when you know better, do better.

African-American poet, Maya Angelou

But knowing better is not a passive process. It’s an active process which requires you to engage and participate.

There is a lot of focus on mentally healthy workplaces these days. We understand that it is important to create psychologically safe workplaces. Psychological safety means we feel safe to show up as our full selves at work, where we can authentically be ourselves, where we can feel accepted and respected. Where we are included. Inclusive and diverse cultures are essential for workplace psychological safety.

In 2021, there is no valid business reason for not having psychologically safe and diverse workplaces. The business case is clear. Psychologically safe and inclusive workplaces benefit from increased productivity, creativity, and innovation, which are exactly the elements we need in this constantly evolving Covid world. A psychologically safe workplace not only creates a competitive and commercial advantage, but organisations have obligations to workplace psychological safety, including around bullying, harassment and discrimination. So, if we’re not creating psychologically safe and inclusive workplaces, why not? If the economic benefits and legal requirements haven’t been enough to create this, then what will?

The group United Nations Women, Australia, predicts that we are 100 years away from reaching gender equality, let alone the various forms of diversity equality beyond binary gender. We can’t just look through the narrow lens of more inclusion for women, which unfortunately we often do. We need to consider gender and sexually diverse people, people of colour, people with differing abilities, neurodiverse people, and people living with mental health issues. Diversity and inclusion isn’t a gender issue, and particularly not a binary gender issue, although that is the shortcut lots of people take.

In 1989, (current) Columbia law professor Kimberly Crenshaw coined the term intersectionality. Crenshaw argued that identity is multi-faceted, and that those various facets interact to create a different experience than if they existed independently. So as a woman, I’ll experience certain levels of bias and discrimination in any given environment. As a woman with chronic health issues and disability, I might also experience additional barriers and discrimination. If I was a woman of colour, if I was a woman of colour with a disability, if I was a trans woman… The different identities that we have interact to create more complex experiences or exclusion.

It’s important that we understand this because too often we try to compartmentalise diversity. Our workplace diversity programs may focus on indigenous employment, or LGBTQIA+ inclusion, or neurodiversity. What we fail to understand is that often people sit across many of those containers. If we don’t understand their individual experience, how can we possibly overcome the individual barriers they experience?

diversity at work
Image credit: Pexels

What we need to get good at is not trying to reduce diversity to a normative view of what that diversity might be. Within those containers there are diverse needs and diverse experiences, and we need to allow these diverse voices to be heard.

We don’t need to fight each other for equality. We need to stand together and fight together for equality. It is incredibly important that we don’t just containerise these ideas to think that our needs are opposing but to think about what’s similar about those needs, what are the barriers that we’re each facing and what are some of the ways to overcome those barriers.

We hear a lot about the gender pay gap, but containerising that and inequality to gender alone is too narrow a focus. The World Economic Forum states that employees who belong to two or more underrepresented categories experience increased oppression and lack of opportunity in unique ways:

  • Men of colour with disabilities in the workplace currently have 56% pay gap (compared with non-disabled white men);
  • Equal pay for white women will come more than 70 years sooner than it does for women of colour;
  • LGBTQIA+ women with disabilities reported significantly higher levels of sexual harassment than both men with disabilities and non-disabled men and women;
  • More than half of lesbian, bisexual and trans women of colour and ethnic minority women (54%) reported unwanted touching compared to around one third of white women (31%).

These examples demonstrate the increased barriers faced by people who experience more than one disadvantage and these intersectional experiences need to be considered. Their voices must be heard, and their needs must be responded to.

How is this level of discrimination, prejudice and abuse happening given we have laws about non-discrimination, workplaces have obligations around psychological safety and the business case for inclusion is clear?

We can hypothesise that there must be other reasons for this to perpetuate in 2021. We can start by asking what are the barriers? Who is benefitting from them being maintained? Whose interests are being served by exclusion? Whose voices are being heard, and whose aren’t? Who’s in the room? Who’s not in the room? And why?

The answers to these questions show us the invisible structures that sustain exclusion. If we’re not willing to have those difficult conversations and examine those structures, we’re not going to see significant improvement, even in a hundred years.

With events on a national basis, we see that there are significant levels of discrimination and lack of equality persists, even in our nation’s most powerful workplaces. We have made some progress as a society, but not enough, and too often we’ve ignored intersectionality and inclusion.

So, what do we do now? We connect together and we move forward together. I’m going to give you four ideas for how you might be able to do this.

Firstly though, what not to do! Don’t take a box ticking approach. Funding an inclusion and diversity program, turning up at diversity breakfasts, for example, is not enough. It’s not enough if you’re not also pushing for systemic and cultural change throughout your organisation intersectionally. Symbols, such as having a float in the Pride Parade, putting on an International Women’s Day event, celebrating Harmony Week, these are important. But if they are done without real change and follow through, they risk amounting to nothing more than virtue signalling. Pretty quickly they’ll start to erode trust and belief in your narrative. People will not join you in these events because they will not trust that your intentions are genuine. hey’ll see them for the tokenism that they risk becoming.

James Charlton, a disability advocate, said ‘Nothing about us, without us.’ Inclusion cannot be done to people. It needs to be done with people. People are not served by a patronising approach to support inclusion. People do not need you to savethem. They need you to get out of their way. They need you to stop sustaining the barriers that have protected you and excluded them.

Here are the four things.

The first is to listen loudly.

Don’t push the mental load for educating you onto the people who are already carrying the load of their marginalisation. Listening means finding new voices to engage with. It doesn’t mean expecting that it’s someone’s obligation to educate you about the barriers they experience. Seek out stories of people with lived experience that is very different to your own, but educate yourself before you expect someone else to educate you.

We are fortunate in 2021 that there is so much content available to us from people with lived experience, different to our own experiences, that we can learn from if we are just willing to be open, to drop our defences and to actually hear.

Once you’ve started to develop an understanding of what you’ve been oblivious to, then talk to people closer to you and ask them. Don’t tell them, but ask them. What are the barriers that they see, that maybe you don’t?

Listening is about creating space for others to be heard. It’s about paying attention. It’s about acknowledgement and consideration of another’s experience and perspective. It’s about empathy and compassion for that experience. When we start to feel awkward hearing somebody else’s stories, sometimes that awkwardness pushes us into defence mode. We try to shut the other person down because it’s really hard to hear. Think for a moment about how hard it must be to live. It’s important that we show the respect to hear those stories when people are willing to share them with us.

Secondly, be willing to examine your own unconscious bias.

This is a tricky one because it has been a little bit commercialised in recent times. There’s an idea that, Tick!, I’m going to do some unconscious bias training and find out what’s wrong with everyone else.

Be willing to examine yourself. This is adulting. Be willing to actually stop and get to know yourself. Do you often base decisions on quick, surface-level judgements? Have you ever made a judgement about someone and then later on found out you were totally wrong? We do it all the time.

It’s not about pretending that your brain is never going to make quick judgements, it’s about not believing every judgement that your brain tells you. Look for other information, other evidence. Explore those ideas, do not just accept them as a universal truth. Do you rely on stereotypes? Do you feel uncomfortable around people who are different to you? Do you start sentences with, ‘I’m not racist/sexist/homophobic…’? If you do, it’s worth examining.

The third action you can undertake is to get comfortable with differences.

When we’re children, we’re socialised to see difference sometimes as wrong or awkward.

Have you ever had a child who, in public, has loudly pointed out someone’s difference? Really loudly and in earshot of that person?

One of my children, on a flight to Hong Kong, was sitting bouncing up and down on my lap. At full volume Maisy screamed ‘Mum! This man has no hair!’

It was a fascinating new discovery for them because Maisy’s grandparents, aunts, uncles and our friends all still had great full heads of hair. Maisy had never seen a bald head up close.

Now this wasn’t my first rodeo with this child who had a habit of pointing out anything interesting to them in public. So there on the plane, my response was to play the ‘Sometimes’ game.

A game we played a LOT. It consisted of saying, sometimes people have no hair like this man, sometimes people have long hair like mummy, sometimes people have short hair like daddy.

Everybody’s hair is different. Isn’t it interesting? I tried to present it in a way that celebrates differences, that is curious about differences, rather than seeing differences as problems. If we try to shoosh them, try to distract them or talk over them, then we’re actually teaching them is that, at best, differences are a little bit awkward, and, at worst, difference is wrong. And they’re not the lessons we want them to have.

My fourth idea for you is to consider your privilege.

Privilege is about power. Inclusion isn’t a passive act. Inclusion is about sharing power.

At an International Women’s Day event in March 2019, Prime Minister Morrison said, ‘We want to see women rise, but we don’t want to see women rise only on the basis of others doing worse’.

The problem with this comment is that people who are currently holding power will need to share that power for there to be a significant change. They may individually feel worse off, however, equality cannot be achieved without the redistribution of power.

Create space for others actively. Be willing not to just acknowledge your own privilege but willing to examine what you might need to let go of if we’re going to genuinely create inclusion.

You can’t sit in your power, not be willing to share it and pretend that inclusion is important to you. It doesn’t work that way.

So the four things; listen loudly; examine your own unconscious bias; embrace and celebrate differences, and examine your own privilege while actively seeking opportunities to share power.

In the first century Jewish leader, Hillel the Elder, famously said ‘If not now, then when?’. African American statesman and civil rights’ leader John Lewis added: ‘If not us, then who?’

It is not enough to have goals of inclusion and diversity. We need to seek to actively identify the invisible and visible structures that collectively maintain exclusion, and we need to tear them down, not just for inclusion, but to be anti-exclusion.

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