When It Comes To Confronting Discrimination, I Could Have Done More

I have few regrets regarding my career. No job I shouldn’t have taken, or no move I should not have made. There may have been a missed opportunity in not accepting change, but I can never know that. There are things I would have done differently with the benefit of hindsight. One of those is standing up to discrimination.

I knew from the beginning that discrimination was a real thing. I grew up on the west side of Cleveland, and was taught to be wary of people from certain parts of town. My neighborhood was predominantly Irish Catholic, and I never saw a person of color in my classrooms until I went to high school.

Reflecting on my engineering education (mid 1970’s), I can recall how some professors made a point of talking about the women in our classes, in a way that today would certainly be considered unacceptable. Not overtly sexist, but still treating their presence as an anomaly, and perhaps unwelcome. They numbered less than ten percent in some disciplines (electrical, chemical, and civil engineering) and zero percent in my mechanical engineering classes.

After college the women engineers I worked with faced a different kind of discrimination. Spouses of the male engineers did not like that there was common travel involving their husbands’ female peers. One man I knew refused to take a trip that would have been considered part of his job because his spouse could not handle it. Management cancelled the female engineer’s travel so he could make the trip without trouble on the home front. This was in the late 1970’s.

Years later as I moved more toward an HR career, I saw lots of things that were just wrong in terms of gender or race. I was in a meeting once where a manager was touting a “diverse candidate” he was about to offer a job to.  “Individuals are individuals, no one is in and of themselves diverse,” I told him. “Diversity is about the collection of individuals.” I get that he was excited about the potential hire, and that it would add to the diversity of the team. He did not see that his actions seemed to be about the diversity metrics in his head.

I regret that I did not do a better job helping managers see diversity as a value, and not a metric. In the case mentioned above, instead of challenging the way I did, I should have instead celebrated that our team was, apparently, about to become more diverse, and then considered how we would assure that our new co-worker would feel free to bring their full selves to work. That we valued not just their work expertise, but their personal perspective – which is, after all, the defining difference that helps us build better things. I did do those things, but not in a way that helped the manager involved understand that.

And while we are embracing our new employees and assuring they feel included, what are we doing about the quiet, long term employees who maybe never felt included but more relegated to their work. Some diversity exists in front of our eyes, but we haven’t figured out the mechanism to tap it.

If I could go back ten years, I would have some good pointers for younger me. While I can’t do that, I can at least offer them to those who have read thus far:

  1. Inclusion is not just asking people to join in. It is being sensitive to what makes them comfortable in joining and making the ground fertile for their contributions.
  2. Silence is often a sign of fear. Fear of being judged. Fear of being dismissed. Fear of not being accepted. You can pester people to speak up, but better to acknowledge that your environment may need some work.
  3. Inclusion means breaking your own barriers a bit. Your club is not perfect the way it is, and if you are being inclusive, your own boundaries may just have to give a little. Or maybe a lot. One does not declare inclusiveness, one demonstrates it.
  4. I may believe I am being inclusive. My own quiet tendencies make me think I understand what it means to be on the outside of things. But my truth is that I have been outside by choice. For many people they are outside because they are being excluded. Perhaps deliberately, perhaps not. But as a leader, you need to be clear in understanding that invitations are not the sole answer to being inclusive.

The last ten years have been very fulfilling for me, but if I had these 4 points in front of me the entire time, I can only imagine how that might have improved my workplace.

It’s never too late to take some steps.


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