More than meets the eye

Diversity – and equality – is something I think about a lot. I am very biased, but I was fortunate enough to be raised by a brilliant feminist mother, who proudly sports a t-shirt proclaiming “This is what a feminist looks like”. As a result I developed a deep-set, unshakeable and core belief early on that there should be equality between men and women. And perhaps given I am also a woman, when I think about diversity and equality I tend to focus on gender.

Recently though I’ve been part of a few conversations about other kinds of diversity, parts of our identity that may not be visible to the eye but that can be just as important. Its been genuinely thought-provoking.

The first was centred around the concept of need. As I’ve mentioned on here many times, I’m a Trustee of an amazing charity Young Women’s Trust, which helps young women trapped in low or no pay. In the years I’ve been working with the charity I’m still struck by the number of young women we help who, on paper, don’t meet the traditional definition of being ‘needy’. They may well have a degree, come from lower middle income homes. But after graduation they find themselves unable to secure work, falling into a soul-destroying downwards cycle of weekly trips to the Job Centre, whilst claiming benefits and sending out countless C.V’s not to get even a single acknowledgement back. The repercussions on mental health, self-esteem and well-being are horrific.

I was moved to tears by a recent anonymous YWT case study by a woman who suffered awful childhood abuse, spent her teens battling depression, anxiety and self-harm, stuck on long waiting lists to get help. But she did well at school and then at university. In her own words:

“My academic record disguised the carnage that was my private life…I had a series of abusive relationships…violence and abuse had been part of my life for so long that I didn’t even recognise there was a problem.”

When she finally realised she needed help and asked for support, she didn’t get it, because she wasn’t deemed needy enough. She had a bank account. She hadn’t been sectioned so her mental illness wasn’t bad enough. People actually said these things to her. She ended up homeless, sleeping in a general hostel.

The story has a happy ending. Following support – in this case provided by the Young Women’s Trust via coaching – she found a job, and feels like a different person;

“For the very first time, I am hopeful for my future.

One of my favourite things about my job is the travel. When I stay overnight, I get put up in really nice hotels.. Work are always very apologetic, but I love it! They don’t know that I am used to the hostel. With no privacy and a mouldy shower and a narrow uncomfortable bed. My very first night away, I danced around the room in my pyjamas, jumped on the bed, took the world’s longest shower and stayed up all night watching TV. I finally felt like I’d made it.”

This incredibly touching and frankly heart-breaking story was a real reminder that we are still very quick to judge based on what we can see. Often success in diversity at work is perceived as being able to look around the room and see lots of people who don’t look alike. Need is often judged based on appearances, as it was with this girl. That’s one of the reasons I love TfL’s recent ‘Please Offer Me a Seat’ scheme which is all about need that is not immediately apparent.

This is not to say visible differences aren’t important. One of the reasons I think we still need to explicitly focus on ethnicity or the gender divide is because these things are still a problem. But its also the unseen differences that bring great diversity to work and I realise now that I’ve been guilty of not always recognising or valuing that. If you had a group of managers in a room and all of us had similar upbringings, values and social status then you wouldn’t necessarily get massive divergence in opinions that would mean we delivered the best results. I work for a company that has a diverse customer base and ultimately companies whose employees and product designers reflect their customer base achieve much more. The internet is littered with bloody insulting examples of men developing products for women who think they’ll make it ‘appeal’ by painting it pink. The woman in this case study likely brings a completely different life experience from her colleagues, yet none of them know a thing about it.

I heard another example along the same vein from a middle-aged, middle-class white man at an industry event this week who was feeling a little frustrated by being lumped in with all the other middle-aged, middle-class white men and assumed they are the same. He pointed out that if you put him in a room with Jeremy Corbyn and Donald Trump they would all be completely different (and not just because Donald Trump isn’t exactly what I would call middle-class…)

There are certainly instances of charities finding it harder to fund-raise for causes that aren’t as obviously needy. I used to work in the digital inclusion space and it was certainly slightly more tricky to raise funding for teaching people how to get online when it was being weighed up in direct comparison to other groups with ‘clearer’ need. But I can’t be prouder to be involved with a charity that works with the woman who need help – regardless of their background or qualification or any other tick box definition of what constitutes need.

And with that I can’t possibly not finish on a little fundraising plug to donate to Young Women’s Trust via my sponsored Sahara Desert Trek! Obligatory Just Giving Page is here. Now to get to that training….

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