If the truth be told, I wasn’t considered to be a diversity expert until I wrote a book, Consequences: Diverse to Mosaic Britain, which touches on the subject. I am, however, a Black British female of Nigerian origin who happened to live with a white working class family during my foundational years. Not only have I lived in both Britain and Nigeria, I’ve travelled extensively to different parts of the world. I have friends from varying backgrounds as well and I’ve also had the opportunity to work with people from varying backgrounds and countries and I’ve learnt a lot from them, too.
At the same time, whilst some of the environments that I’ve worked in have been quite diverse – at least on the surface there are others that appear to have a majority of middle class white men. Regardless of the environment that I’ve walked into, my starting point has always been, first, the values that I share with the organisation that impact on the organisation culture and the way things work which determine whether it is an environment that I can comfortably work in or not. Secondly is the value that I offer i.e. the skills, talents and competencies that will potentially enable me to fulfil the tasks/responsibilities that I have been engaged for.
I very rarely walk into an room thinking I’m the only female in the room or person of colour unless something happens that very directly points to it. This is exemplified by a meeting I had recently with the Chief Executive of an organisation who for no apparent reason pointed out to me that they were making good progress recruiting females at all levels within the organisations. She then gestured towards me and said, that they still have a long way to go in recruiting people of minority backgrounds. Mentally, I looked behind me, wondering who she was referring to as although I understand that I fit the label, I don’t typically refer to myself as a minority. To me, I’m just me.
I unquestionably recognise the value of and need for a diverse workforce: The need to encourage it, have special programmes to make it happen at times and the fact that we need to take measures to accommodate it within workplace. Sometimes I do, however, believe that we over emphasis certain differences or at least too often make them the starting point.
If you’ve come across the “Waterline of Visibility” you will recognise that we are ALL diverse in different ways – some just more apparent than others.
Through the concept of an iceberg, the “Waterline of Visibility” shows what is above water i.e. usually immediately apparent when you meet a person e.g. gender, race, physical ability, ethnicty. There is then the murky area which is partly visible or that you could possibly guess e.g. nationality, social status, wealth, culture, language.
Below the waterline of visibility there is however so much more, that is so rich such as our value systems, religion, education, talents, heritage, sexual orientation, beliefs, thought process, skills, political preferences, interests and hobbies etc.
The problem is, if we start of by focusing on differences, there is a risk that we will come to the conclusion that our differences are what define us and that once we recognise accept the immediately apparent differences that we know all that we need to know. I specifically remember working with an organisation with a very diverse workforce where team relationships had broken down.
There were clear divisions within the team largely based around ethnicity with people speaking languages within the office that excluded others from conversations. People did not like this, but they didn’t complain – they didn’t feel able to. Many also expressed the opinion that regardless of the divisions they were a good team without any racial based problems because they had lunches whereby they would all bring food to work from their places of origin.
The lunches were great, but I got the impression that they were working so hard on accepting differences, that they had not taken the time to understand the common values and interests that would enable them to integrate to be a more effective team. When an individual comes into a workplace and the immediate message overt or implicit is that a person is different and that we must accommodate them and be sensitive to them, it does not encourage real integration and acceptance through understanding.
I believe that at times we over emphasize differences via diversity whilst our starting point should be more about the common values of the different people coming together from different backgrounds bring. This makes people feel more comfortable with people. If we add to this the value that people bring to the team that they are working in, people are more likely to feel positive about people as they know they are making a positive contribution.
I believe that if we first do this then people will be much more interested in understanding and accommodating the differences that people bring.
This is what I have in mind when I make reference to the Mosaic. There is no question about our diversity. The real magic will come when we use the glue of our common values to bring us together with our differences to form a mosaic.