Facing uncomfortable truths to make your workplace more equal

5 March 2019
Author: Frances Longley

If you could swallow a pill and make everyone in the world equal, would you? Easy to say “Yes, of course” — but think about it. If you’re reading this, you’re almost certainly in a position of privilege. You’re literate, educated. Perhaps you work in international development. You’re on a website, so you’ve got access to technology and time to browse. You’re already a winner in an unequal system. 

If everyone in the world is to be equal, you’re going to have to give something up – maybe quite a lot of things. Your comfort and privilege exist only because of someone else’s disadvantage. Are you still sure about taking that pill? 

Now ask yourself this: if you could swallow a different pill and make your workplace culture more equal, would you do it? I’m talking about having an organisational culture where opportunity and reward are available to everyone, purely on merit. Sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? But many of us will need to give some things up if we are to achieve this. 

The uncomfortable truths of inclusivity

We might find that some of those career achievements, which we modestly put down to natural brilliance, were helped along by a little positive discrimination. We might find that looking and sounding like the people who hired us is a huge advantage that we didn’t need to work for, that our success is built in part on others being disadvantaged by an unfair system. If we want our workplaces to be more equal, we’ll need to relinquish some of that privileged fairy dust — and who knows where that might lead us? 

Take me: I’m a white, straight, non-disabled, middle class, middle-aged woman. With support from my parents, I went to grammar school and a decent university. That was before tuition fees in the UK, so like many people my age I graduated without debt. I own a house because I got on the property ladder 20 years ago, when that was a realistic option even in the third sector. I’ve got a British passport, so I’ve travelled widely and worked abroad, even though I speak only English. 

How much of that was down to my own efforts, and how much to the good hand I was dealt? It wasn’t all straightforward: I’ve regularly experienced discrimination at work based on my gender. I’ve worked hard, taken risks, knuckled down when it’s been tough. I’m now in a senior role, a chief executive. But I’ve also had many advantages that I didn’t work for, simply because of who I am, how I look, where I was born. That’s an uncomfortable truth. Looked at that way, how do your achievements measure up?

Driving meaningful diversity and equality

Establishing a more equal culture at work will take thoughtful change if we want to redress the balance. If it’s successful, those of us who grew up with systemic advantages will need to change how we look at the world. We may need to work harder than we’re used to if we still want to shine brightly. If that’s the case, how do we persuade ourselves, our colleagues, our bosses and our boards to take on the challenge of building a workplace culture rooted in equality and diversity? How do we convince the people at the top of the ladder, with the power to make decisions, to vote for their systemic advantage to be exposed and perhaps reversed? 

There are no easy answers. I’m working towards it in my own organisation, but we’re not there yet. Changing the system is hard — and I can promise you it’s uncomfortable. An open conversation, in our workplaces and across our sector, is vital if we’re going to get there.

We need more people to embrace the discomfort and commit to change. We need to admit that it’s difficult, and that we all get it wrong sometimes. We need to talk openly and learn from each other. 

If you want to be part of the discussion which is changing our sector, a good place to start is the Bond Conference on 18-19 March. Join me and colleagues on Monday afternoon for Nurturing a culture of equality, where we’ll be sharing experiences and encouraging debate. I’ll also be exploring challenges like this one for NGO leaders in the session on Global leadership for difficult times

About the author

Frances Longley
Amref Health Africa UK

Frances is chief executive of Amref Health Africa UK, with over 20 years' experience in the sector.