Dear Clients and Colleagues
Happy 2017. Predictions these days seem wobblier and wobblier, so we won’t make any. But looking over the landscape as it is relevant to diversity, we keep coming back to one insight.
The people who voted for Donald Trump or for Brexit seem to share one particular strong feeling about their lives. They see advancing the talents of those who have typically suffered discrimination as a zero sum game for them. If women and black people, for instance, get the opportunity to succeed in greater numbers, then they will have less chance. They feel that as one (white) Trump voter put it: “these people (by which he meant gays and black people) have a voice, someone who speaks for them. I don’t”.
It’s difficult to hear comments like that because you want to shout out… ‘but yes you may feel that but you’ve had a voice for years and they haven’t until recently. They are playing catch up in rights and opportunities’.
Well sure… but when you have lost what gave you self-worth in the world – work, being able to support your family without both of you working at two jobs…. telling that person that they have “white privileged” doesn’t really add up. They don’t feel ‘privileged’
And the result has been that those of us who are working to open up opportunities for everyone – by removing traditional blocks to the talent of certain groups of people – are now cast as the “liberal elitists”! It’s ironic.
But we have to take it on.
We have to reframe our approach to diversity.
In this month’s Harvard Business Review there is a great article called “Are You Solving the Right Problems?” by Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg (what a great name!)
Recently we have been doing some work with a terrific University on the bme attainment gap. They are dedicated to closing it. It is the shameful fact that if you compare black kids who enter University with the same A levels as their white friends, 18% less of them get 1sts and 2:1s. This is across all Universities. From the top to the bottom of the league tables.
So how to tackle it? If you just see it as a bme issue there are two consequences. The bme students can feel patronised, singled out, stigmatised and the white students can feel resentful that there is support being given to their black friends which they are not getting.
So reframe the issue…. Yes there is an attainment gap for bme students. Yes it is a specific issue for black students (more than for asian or far eastern-origin students, as it happens) But not for all bme students and also there are white students who are underachieving. So the re-framing comes from seeing the bme attainment gap as a prism through which to look at the offer to ALL students. Through the issue of the bme attainment gap we can ask “how can we personalise teaching and support to every student?”.
Among other approaches, this University is planning to use the fact that all students use swipe entry cards to access university facilities (an existing security measure) to identify those students not attending lectures or using the library – they may have to have a job to earn money to live, be having difficulty with travel, be alienated from their course….
(This idea comes from work at another University, Nottingham Trent, by Michael Kerrigan on how to measure student engagement with University courses. You can see that here:
What this can enable is the identification of students who’re not engaging and start the process of providing targeted individual support. If that support is given while also recognising that the data tell us that there are bme specific issues that may lie behind underachievement for those students, then that will help to find out the reasons the student is struggling – maybe it’s the curriculum, the teaching, the cultural insensitivity of some course work etc..
The point is that, the underachievement may be about bme specific issues, but it may not be. The important thing is to take that group understanding and then apply it individually. People are not just the group they belong to. But without understanding the significance of the experience of that group then you may miss the solution. You can’t just treat all the black kids to the tyranny of low expectations, and equally you can’t ‘accuse’ poor white students of “white privilege”. Students from both groups struggle and also achieve, but possibly for different reasons.
The challenge is to understand them as individuals in the context of their situation and provide support that works for them. So the issue of bme attainment becomes reframed as a question of how we provide individualised educational support for all students.
This is as true for your staff in a company as it is for these students in a University. Seeing diversity as an issue for all of us means that we will focus on solutions that mean something to all our staff.
Wedell-Wedellsborg’s article provides a great check list to use in trying to re-frame problems. Try using it every time you start to think that something is a diversity issue. It may be. But it may not be best seen that way. For it to speak to everybody your may need to reframe it.
So in 2017 let’s re-frame diversity so that, as we are always emphasising in our work, it really engages everyone.
Happy New Year