‘When a flower doesn’t bloom you fix the environment in which it grows not the flower’
- Alexander Den Heijer
My first vivid memory of exclusion happened in my grade 11 gym class; I was 16 years old. I chose physical education as an elective class as I was athletic and loved being active. This was my first co-ed gym class and there were only a handful of girls in the class. The teacher was the men’s rugby coach and taught us an Aussie game called speedball which was a mix between rugby and soccer. I have to hand it to him, it was fun! One afternoon we were playing speedball in the field and the boys started to play amongst themselves and excluded all the girls. One by one, the girls gave up trying and started to walk the field or stood to the side as they simply were not included. I tried to stay engaged, ran with the boys and was open for a pass every time. The boys saw that I was open but not once did I get a pass even though I was calling for it. They instead threw the ball to a boy who had three defenders on him rather than pass to a girl who was wide open. I finally said to the teacher ‘This isn’t fair. No one is passing to me even though I am open’ and without a flinch the gym teacher told me that ‘I wasn’t trying’. The impact of that moment was huge. He simultaneously reduced me to being lazy and taught a group of young men that it is ok to dismiss a team member not because she wasn’t good at the sport but because she was a girl. I ripped my bib off and threw it on the grass and stormed off the field in sheer frustration. The system which was created and enforced in that game made it so that 100% of the females could not succeed.
In business of today, exclusion tends not to be as overt as my gym experience but parallel the same structure of a system of exclusion being enforced by a leader or leadership. As we know, exclusion reaches far beyond gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation and also includes differences such as functional expertise, education level and thinking styles. I would define exclusion as anyone who is reduced to less than they are (not being seen and heard). Being ‘reduced’ does just that, it reduces not only that person but their motivation, engagement, respect for their leaders, drive and creativity.
The tricky thing about exclusion is that it is seldom done maliciously or consciously but rather subtly and consistently. Leaders recognise the value of diversity but do not have the leadership skills to access and leverage that value.
In the HBR (Harvard Business Review) article, ‘Diversity doesn’t stick without inclusion’ Laura Sherbin and Ripa Rashid outline what they see as the six behaviours of inclusive leaders which are:
- Ensuring that team members speak up and are heard
- Making it safe to propose novel ideas
- Empowering team members to make decisions
- Taking advice and implementing feedback
- Giving actionable feedback
- Sharing credit for team success
By identifying specific behaviour, inclusive leadership becomes more tangible and achievable. However, the need for the overall system to support this behaviour remains. More businesses are realising that the impact of diversity without inclusion is costing them in innovation, performance and revenue. I am a natural optimist and am hopeful in organisations and their leaders to grow their ability to create and support systems that empower people to be their highest and best selves.
Vernā Myers, Diversity Advocate, says:
“Diversity is being invited to the party. Inclusion is being asked to dance.”
Coming back to my gym experience, while I was invited to the party, I was certainly not asked to dance. I hold the vision for all of us being asked to dance in our places of work.