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We need to stop talking about equality in the workplace

By Florencia Giampaoletti

Wishing for everyone to be seen as the same is nice, but it’s not helpful. There is no universal human experience, so why should we ignore our differences? Florencia Giampaoletti of our Diversity and Inclusion Steering Committee explains why calling everybody equal will not achieve equality.



'Equality: (noun) The right of different groups of people to have a similar social position and receive the same treatment.' Cambridge dictionary

"In this company we're all the same. We don't see colour. We don't see gender. We're all about equality. We're all the same, so everyone should have the same opportunities."

Have you heard this at work? Do you agree with the above? Well, this needs to stop.

Look around. Maybe not at your senior board, but look around your office. Your teams, your clients, the cleaners.

Think about the people you see on your commute. The person that made your coffee this morning.

We are not the same.

We don't look the same. We don't sound the same. We haven’t shared the same positive experiences. Nor have we struggled with the same things. And every one of those things that make us different has given us advantages and disadvantages. So why would it make sense to want everyone to be seen as the same?

To some, being different is seen as negative. Not for being different per se, but for how the world works – for now. Because society has institutionalised attitudes towards certain differences, leading to unconscious biases. This means we're not playing on a level field. For example, in every test you have ever taken, you may have worked hard enough, but someone ‘different’ may have had to work even harder because they were given extra obstacles which you didn’t even know existed. Do you remember that entry level job you applied for? You may have been able to afford taking an internship during uni, so you're ahead of those that just couldn't afford to stop working because they had to bring food to the table. And you might be even further ahead of the person that didn't make it to the final round of CVs, because their name sounded a bit too ‘exotic’. The recruiter probably wasn’t even aware of why, but something inside them told them that person wasn't the right candidate. And the list of examples goes on and on.

We've all been given different cards to play this game. And most, if not all, are things we didn't choose for ourselves. We start this race in different places. So how on earth is it fair to treat everyone the same way?

And imagine if we were all the same. People that look, sound and think like you won't bring anything new to your life, nor your business. It's in our nature to feel a connection to those who are similar to us, but surrounding ourselves with our own mirror image will only create illusions and blind spots. It will make you more ignorant. A diverse team will help you see things from every angle.

When we want everyone to be treated the same way, regardless of gender or race or ability or status, we might mean well, but we are part of the problem. Because there are people we work with or for, who are at a disadvantage because of these factors. So treating everyone the same way is a disservice to them. We’re choosing to ignore the things that make their human experience more difficult, as well as the things that make them have a unique perspective. 

Why does this happen? Usually because of ignorance or fear of discomfort.

But ignorance can be cured. We’re all learning here. Even that person you think has it all figured out is constantly educating themselves – or should be. All it takes is willingness to listen, to be humble and to keep learning.

Fear of discomfort, on the other hand, might be a little harder to overcome. Opening conversations around this area can be awkward. Especially for people that can't relate to these struggles. (Probably because they were lucky enough to be born in the 'right' country, in the 'right' family, along with the skin colour, gender and personality that the key decision-makers can relate with.)

 

‘What am I supposed to do, give them my job?’

 

‘I don't make hiring decisions, I can't really help.’

 

‘Isn't bringing these things up just putting them into boxes?’

 

‘I thought forgetting about these things and seeing them just as humans was the whole point.’

 

‘Why should we make ourselves feel guilty about it?’


So we need to stop talking about equality. Because we're not equal. We need to acknowledge the struggles some people face because of their race, religion, sexuality, ability, etc. and consider them when we make any kind of decision. They don't have the privilege to forget about them every day. And when we do forget about them, we only do it because of our own comfort, not their benefit.

 

Let’s start thinking about the things that make us different. We need to try, even if we keep getting things wrong, because we’ll try again and get it wrong again, until we get it right. We need to stop being afraid or lazy and start having these conversations.

 

We can only change things we’re conscious about. So when you go back to the office or into that meeting, instead of talking about all of us being the same, think about our differences. Notice how not everyone is invited to participate in meetings, how some people are more interrupted than others (and take note of by whom), how we might be getting the same kind of candidates because we’re constantly looking in the same places, using the same brief and the same recruiters. And try to be more conscious about your own biases when reviewing CVs (because we all have them).

 

In order to create an environment in which everyone can be themselves, we all need to be aware of everyone’s challenges and the value they bring. We should start thinking about the perspectives, expertise and power our differences bring to the table. Because you'll never be able to relate to 100% of the general population. But the more diverse people you bring in, the greater your collective knowledge will be. Include them in the conversations and the decision-making. Educate yourself. Be humble. And question your decisions - am I being fair? Am I thinking this of their opinion because they look, or sound like that? Are we able to recognise when we don’t know enough, when we need to educate ourselves, or when we need to just pass the mic to the people who need it more?

 

And when we all get there one day, we might be able to start talking about equality.