On diversity

I hadn’t thought to write anything on this topic, as I don’t consider it directly related to my learning journey – the key topic of this blog. However, after seeing a great talk from Mereen Mohammad at the South West Test meetup last week, I realised that it’s something that affects everything about my work life – including my learning.

I really enjoyed the talk because it included many types of diversity – not just the kind where companies hire some women and think they’re done. Mereen is a French muslim woman with Pakistani parents, so she ticks a lot of boxes for employers. She spoke about feeling that when she was hired at a previous job, there was an attitude from the company like they had done their bit. They now had a European employee, a muslim employee and a female employee – what more did they need to do? They were now a diverse company! This is such a fundamental misunderstanding of the meaning and intention behind diversity.

Diversity has to be more than pushing numbers. There has to be an attitude shift before, with and because of an increase in diversity at a company. I really like the way this is laid out on the Queensborough Community College website, particularly the following part:

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There needs to be the agreement and enforcement of practices that nurture diversity in the workplace, or diversity won’t work. You don’t get the benefits of diversity, unless the whole spectrum of diverse people in your company feel safe and comfortable to work in the ways that are best for them (and there are great benefits to diversity – check out this Forbes article if you want to know more about how diversity is a positive force for any company).

My background

I come from Pembrokeshire, a county in West Wales where the busses run every two hours and half the road signs are missing but it’s fine because the roads are all blocked by cows and tourists who don’t know how to reverse. The nearest village to our house consisted almost entirely of families who had lived in the same valley for generations – even after living there for 20 years, speaking Welsh and having a family originally from the area, I was not considered ‘local’.

Screenshot 2018-11-07 at 12.43.20

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Demographics for my region from around the time I was in primary school.

Growing up, all of my friends were white. All of my neighbours, teachers, and the pub regulars as well. Everyone I met in my day to day life was white. When I started secondary school, there was one black boy in my year. He was the only non-white person in the entire school, counting staff. He left within a year, and I didn’t think anything of it. No one bullied him, he had plenty of friends because he was kind and outgoing, so I didn’t even think of the possibility that he didn’t feel he fitted in.

Looking back now, I can see that it must have been uncomfortable and alienating. People were always looking – you couldn’t help it, if you’d never seen a black person before in your entire life except on tv – and this was in the UK in 2004. I didn’t think then about how different he must have felt whenever people asked to touch his hair, telling him how like velcro it was and how springy! I experienced something similar when I volunteered in El Salvador, where everyone has dark hair. Random strangers would walk up to me and pull at my fringe to see if it was a wig that would fall off. They’d call me rubia (blonde) and some would try to touch it every day, telling me how soft it was. It was like being different automatically gave people a right to interact with that difference any way they wanted, and I felt ashamed of myself for asking to touch Cavi’s hair in year 7.

As for gender diversity – I never associated strongly with being a woman, even when I identified as such. I didn’t worry that there were only 7 women on my university course out of 25, and I didn’t feel that it disadvantaged me in any line of work I tried for. The thing is, I was looking at cafe jobs, pub jobs, temporary shop workers. It’s not exactly an unwelcoming industry for women. When I started working with children, I found that the vast majority of employees were women. At an iron age hill fort where I ran workshops, there was one man and six women, the admin was a woman and so was the manager. When I later worked for a company doing after-school science clubs, there was a similar proportion – typically one man to nine or ten women. The owner of the company was a man, but the regional operations managers (of which I later became one) were split 50-50.

I only hit a wall when I started looking for a new line of work. It felt like a job ad description never fit me. A friend recommended me for my current job, and after six months here I honestly feel I am well suited to it. So you’d think that as someone whose character was a good match for the job, I felt super confident after looking at the job ad.

Absolutely not. The advert was a simple list of responsibilities, none of which I fully understood. After seeing the advert, if I’d had any other options then I would have taken them. I didn’t get the impression that it was the kind of company who would want me – someone who works hard, learns hard, but spends 10 minutes every morning looking up silly gifs to post in the slack chat. Someone who turns up to the office in sparkly silver platform trainers but hasn’t bought new glasses in six years. Someone who asks a million questions, goes out of their way to pick up new responsibilities, but can’t concentrate on work on Mondays until someone has asked them what they thought of the latest episode of Dr Who.

I say this because job descriptions have always been the one big deterrent for me, and for people who don’t identify as male in general. There’s plenty of articles out there about this, but suffice it to say that the way an ad is written can skew your candidates to the masculine side regardless of whether or not they’d be a good fit for your company.

In the workplace

As I said, I had no other options so I went ahead with the application even though I felt horribly undeserving and thought I might even be laughed out of the interview. I’m lovely though, so it went fine.

The next hurdle I had in joining the company was trying to make friends. It’s an all-male workplace, though there is another non-male in our London office, so I felt instantly alone upon joining. It didn’t help that primary communication was over Slack – it’s not that common for people to just randomly walk up to your desk for a chat. I remember thinking how strange and quiet it was, and how weird that you could know when someone had posted something funny on Slack because you’d hear sporadic chuckles throughout the office. I couldn’t exactly attempt to strike up random conversations to try and bond when everyone was sat quietly at their desks, apparently intently working.

I know now that there’s a lot of joking about, and it’s a really friendly place. It just didn’t feel like it when I was one non-male wondering if it was okay to ask someone a question, when I was so obviously fundamentally different. I would just be a bother, and maybe they’d even think I was acting that way because of my gender. At the end of the first week, I had made no friends. I walked home crying, despairing that I would never fit in. Even the office socialising was problematic. I didn’t want to go out drinking after work every day – a night out is all well and good, but I didn’t feel comfortable getting pissed with 15 men I didn’t know. If I’d been male, I would not have needed to be afraid, and I’d have been able to bond over a few pints and then a few shots after that.

After a few weeks, I had made some friends over slack and this snowballed until I had a small group of people I could comfortably ask work questions to. From there, I was introduced to various hobby channels, such as film appreciation, anime (affectionately called misc-tentacles), dog photos and gaming. Five months in, I decided that I was now entirely comfortable with being the only non-male in the office.

The next question was – could I invite my transgender girlfriend to have a drink after work? Could I tell people that I myself am not female? Who, out of all these lovely people I had been talking to, would turn out to be transphobic or acephobic? Who would make jokes about how disappointed they were to not have a “hot lesbian” in the office? It may seem distrustful, but my experience is that even super lovely people can turn out to have very misguided views.

With the GRA (Gender Recognition Act) reforms coming up, possibly to allow people in the UK to legally identify as non-binary, did I dare bring up the topic? Should I run a workshop? Even though people had gladly called me Bruce from the very first day, I wasn’t confident my gender would be understood and respected.

In the end, I came out as non-binary, attempted to run a workshop but backed out because I couldn’t handle the thought of having to explain myself to coworkers as they asked questions they didn’t realise were intrusive or invalidating. It took a lot of thought, and no one probably realises how much stress this caused me. So it’s not really a surprise that half of UK trans employees hide LGBT status at work. I still don’t feel that others think of me as NB at all – I’m still the girl in the office, though there have been some good moments. Being asked my preferred pronouns by one colleague was a good moment.

What am I getting at?

I suppose what I’m trying to say is that I think the push for diversity is great and all, but wouldn’t it be nice if it wasn’t just a push for gender equality between cisgender men and cisgender women? Wouldn’t it be nice to see just as big a push for race, religion and lgbt+ diversity within companies too? Particularly in the development world.

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