Don’t Need a Head of Diversity? Discuss

Equality, Diversity, and Inclusion are rightly hot topics in Leadership and Governance. It’s the latest iteration of a movement going back decades, pushing for equality of opportunity regardless of age, gender, religion, ethnicity, sexuality, neurology … or any other human characteristic. It’s a topic I have long been passionate about, and I’m lucky to be surrounded by colleagues who share that passion. At Norman Broadbent, we work closely with organisations large and small to help them overcome their ED&I challenges, and coach them to understand where improvements can be made. Which is why it often surprises client when we say that we have made a conscious decision not to have a Head of ED&I. I was a little surprised when the decision was announced and, if truth be told, I did not wholly agree with it. Many of my friends outside of work had suggested I apply for a role of this nature or push for it internally: as a woman with ambitions, I had encountered sexism and discrimination in my early career and had struggled (and continue to struggle) with ‘working mum guilt’. I felt that on that basis I was more than qualified, and I wrestled with my disappointment.

A short while later, I was watching the final day of an athletics competition on the TV. The women’s GB Relay Team had just performed outstandingly and placed in the top three. I was bemoaning the fact that all women’s final events come before ‘the big finale’: the men’s events (who came up with that order?), when my husband said, ‘I wonder if the photographers will ask the men’s team to pose like that?’ Broadcasting across the nation’s TV screens, were four women being asked to pose provocatively with a large union jack flag. You could see the photographers gesticulating, coaxing the women into the pose they wanted. I was stunned: were we still objectifying women in this way? Reducing an achievement of huge physical and mental ability to a tabloid back-page feminist’s nightmare? I was so angry – how must those women feel?

And that’s when a sudden realisation hit me. I could never know how those women felt. Worse, I was shocked that I had only just realised that being female myself didn’t automatically entitle me to a deep and complete understanding of other women’s’ feelings. Perhaps they were so used to it, it didn’t bother them? Perhaps they as angry as I was and inwardly crying out to be recognised for what they had achieved on the track rather than the way they looked in their new running outfits? – but it was just as likely that they were thrilled to be recognised not only for their physical prowess but also their mental strength and sexuality? I had no idea. I was projecting my feelings and assuming, as women, they would feel the way I would feel in that situation. At that point, I also understood why we do not have one dedicated person for ED&I.

Everybody is different. It’s a cliché because it’s true. Society has constructed a set of labels to enable us to fit people into boxes. At its root, it’s an evolutionary urge – early man survived by establishing who was ‘clan’ and who was ‘not clan’. But as a by-product, we have developed prejudices and discriminatory thinking: racism, sexism, homophobia to name a few. These stereotypes and prejudices are predicated on the idea that “I know what ‘that lot’ are like.” But no two people – regardless of whatever ‘box’ you put them in, will be the same. Human beings are infinitely complex. They may have had similar experiences and tackled similar challenges, but how those challenges made them feel and how they dealt with it will range wildly. As a society, we tend to make assumptions about people based on the ‘box’ they sit in. But what this does is it takes away each person’s identity and assumes everyone in that box wants and feels the same thing(s).

The more I thought about it, the more I realised that heading up ED&I was an impossible task, requiring almost infinite empathy and insight. True, it’s a role that is relatively new within organisations, created by the demand to be [seen as] more diverse and inclusive, and as such is just ‘finding its feet’. No doubt it will evolve. But in that moment, I understood the decision to not place the full responsibility for ED&I in the lap of one person.

I am not advocating abolishing all Heads of ED&I. On the contrary, I believe this is something that should regularly be on the Boardroom agenda. But it must be recognised that this is not one person’s responsibility, and that one person (or even a small team) cannot change anything alone. Everyone in the business or organisation is accountable. Companies should be clear about what they want to achieve – and talk to individuals about them, not the label we have given them. That way, a truly inclusive and equal environment will develop, where everybody learns from everybody else about experiences, values, and what matters most to them. Let’s empty the boxes, create an environment where the ‘taboo’ is openly talked about. Let’s talk to each other as individuals, recognise our bias and assumptions and push them to the side.   Let’s create a label-less society. Then the Head of ED&I role will truly be redundant (as it is at Norman Broadbent). Why? Because everyone should be their own Head of ED&I …

To discuss this article in more detail, or to perhaps see how The Norman Broadbent Group can help you achieve your ED&I goals, contact Angela Hickmore, via