Ten years ago, I nervously traveled to a leadership training. I had been told to expect an intense four days with 20 other participants. The first morning, we gathered and said our hellos. The class was 19 men and me.
As one of the men approached, I offered my hand. “Can you get me a coffee?” he asked.
Ouch. I had done everything to “look” the part – I had on my dressy shoes, more formal pants and a jacket. But for him, because of my gender, I didn’t fit.
“I’m your classmate,” I told him.
Last month, I flashed-back to this decade-old experience during a session about people and culture. There were yellow sticky notes with lots of positive statements about how our work environment feels:
“I’m doing my best work because of the supportive environment”
“I have opportunities to learn and grow”
And then there was this one:
“People assume I am the janitor because I … ”
Imagine ways you could fill in the “ … ”:
Because of my gender? Because of my accent? Because of the color of my skin?
I read the statement and immediately my stomach hurt. Is this how our organisation makes people feel?
For all of my 27 years with our amazing company, I’ve experienced opportunities which were inclusive bringing me into rooms “where it happened” to learn and grow. Just like those who wrote the positive comments above, I can tell many stories about how our inclusive work environment has provided me with mentoring, support and opportunities.
Yet, I have been asked to get the coffee and have been looked at strangely when entering a room. I know any diverse work environment can still fall short at times on inclusion. All it takes in any great workplace is for one of us to make a quick, unconscious judgement and that judgement becomes the reality of our work environment. It makes someone not be recruited, not apply, not be selected. Or makes someone feel isolated. Not heard. Not valued.
One of my proudest moments as a parent was when my daughter shared that she asked a new student to join her for lunch. Having been the new kid herself once – spending 6 lonely months before finding friends – she catalysed a quicker sense of inclusion for the newcomer.
Think about your day yesterday. Were you empathetic towards others and inclusive 100% of the time? I know I wasn’t – it’s hard! To be honest, some days I prefer my comfortable bubble. But I recognise that while we have made progress, we need to make even more progress in the areas of diversity and inclusion.
And that means I need to not rely on the invisible “we” to fix it – I need to get curious about what I do that builds inclusion and what I do that inhibits inclusion. I need to take action to move the needle in a way that can be measured and felt.
What action can you take today to positively impact inclusion in your work environment? It might be as simple as asking a newcomer to lunch. Or you might go out of your way to ask someone who isn’t your gender or from your country or ethnicity or political party for advice.
How can you be a catalyst for inclusion in your work environment?