What can be done so that the heteronormative structure and other non-inclusive perspectives cease to be “the standard norm” and that people that feel excluded are more comfortable in the workplace? Some possible actions range from simply respecting the name and pronouns that each person chooses to holding celebrations that do not refer to a single possible family type.
Despite the advances in terms of rights and achievements in recent decades regarding gender identity and sexual orientation, there are still biases present in everyday life. The ones that are part of our work life are not only usually the most entrenched and invisible, but are also the ones that most affect people and the entire organization. It is difficult and costly to not be able to openly be who you want to be in an environment in which we spend so much time. There are glass ceilings of all kinds and of different heights. Heteronormalcy, so deeply installed in many societies as the idea of the nuclear family, is one of the biases that is difficult to modify. A heteronormative environment assumes the heterosexual couple as the only model for a bond or connection and sets a series of explicit or implicit norms that leave many people out, with a consequent negative impact on their lives and their work trajectories. And with the pandemic in mind, the challenge of questioning the heteronormative ideals is greater, because in this context many organizational defects installed – due to generalized stress and fear, among other reasons – deepened and some cultural debts will be more difficult to settle without greater effort and commitment in all levels of management.
Does diversity mean inclusion?
According to Simon Sinek, an English writer and leadership expert, diversity is not about color or religion, but about perspective: It involves being open to the idea that other people may conceive and choose different ways of life. The ability to relate to people who are different from us always arises from curiosity: if we believe there is nothing new to see, then we won’t learn anything new and we’ll get used to experiencing less. In other words, being diverse is not just about accepting differences but also about genuinely caring for them and embracing them.
When the notion of diversity began to resonate in the corporate world, it seemed that it was enough to just increase the endorsement of diverse resources. But, if those resources do not feel included in the organizational culture matrix, their incorporation would be in vain. Diversity and inclusion are very different issues; differentiating them and implementing inward change actions has become a current challenge for many companies.
Managing diversity and inclusion requires a commitment from management and a clear message to all levels of command. A diversified team will not achieve good results unless it is contained and its differences are managed. Only when diversity is well managed can high performance results be achieved. And not doing this constitutes the first obstacle to an inclusive culture: companies that do not promote the inclusion of their teams are those that in the long term end up making entrenched practices invisible and do not detect the actions that would level the playing field for all organization profiles. This is where prejudices, biases and rigidities come from. An example of these ingrained practices can be found in the heteronormative gaze, which not only excludes but also limits the possibility that all people can show themselves as they are and thus unfold their full potential. “We continue to find evidence of this when we double-click, for example, in the recruitment and selection processes,” according to Laura Barbeito and María Alvaredo, co-founders and directors of Plural, a consulting firm specialized in managing cultural changes in diversity and inclusion.
“Even without the deliberate intention to discriminate against someone, this gaze sneaks into the questions that are asked, which tend to assume the heterosexuality of people” they added. And there’s more: “There are still organizational cultures in which people assume that it is not possible to show themselves as they are and are somehow forced to make efforts to fit in.”
These efforts are not isolated events. For example, when people adjust the way they dress or avoid sharing photos of their significant other or talking about their vacations, or simply leave their families out of all kinds of corporate events.
What we choose to say and what we keep to ourselves
The power of language is immense. Everything changes depending on how we enunciate it, the subjects we choose, the voices to which we give room. Language creates realities and that construction begins with which messages we make visible and which we continue to silence. Organizations should start to rethink the way they communicate and review practices that favor or hinder the inclusion of all their members.
Liora Gomel is a professional and a mother, she holds a degree in Communication Sciences (UBA), specialized in communication with a focus on diversity, gender and human rights. What is known today in terms of perspectives embedded in organizations? “The first thing you see is the difficulty to stop thinking about roles and structures in a rigid way. It is not usual to see a large number of single parents or parents within the LGBTQ+ community in celebrations such as father’s, mother’s or child’s day,” she replies.
In many cases, neither time nor place are respected, so that everyone in an organization can express themselves, participate or develop their functions well. When decisions that have to do with the operation of the business are determined between a few and in informal settings, in an after office for example, there is a problem. And the problem gets bigger if leaders refuse or don’t see it.
These everyday situations shape the way things are done and how people behave, and they are entrenched in behaviors that are inherited. Changing them is essential to guarantee a very simple reality: people who feel comfortable work calmly, because they do not devote energy to hiding or tolerating a situation that does not include them.
“Every process requires a strategy, because cultural transformation may have good intentions but if it is not properly implemented, it is in vain. It is not about imposing a different ideology, but about developing a process that explains, tells stories and speaks about everyone”. For this reason, it is as necessary to take actions toward change as it is to generate a prior awareness-raising process so that these changes are well received. To share them with an appropriate language and tone is essential, so that they can really resonate with the culture and be sustained over time. The key? “Listening to people is the best solution. Nobody knows more than the employees themselves ”, says Liora.
Fighting rigidities that prevent us from growing
Generating a transformation undoubtedly requires a comprehensive approach to the issue. We can and must carry out training and awareness activities that help connect with the impact of discrimination and bring it to light. But it is not enough if we don’t work with people and what is put at stake on a day-to-day basis, in the comments that are made, in the jokes and in the way the teams are managed.
First and foremost, an authentic and visible commitment needs to be assumed, and this begins with intervention in discrimination or inequality situations. Those in leadership positions in organizations have the key to inclusion within their teams and from their actions they must communicate, for example, without assuming the sexuality of a person or promoting stereotypes and, always, avoid comments intended to ridicule; respect a chosen name and pronouns and, above all, respect all people.
There is no use in changing the company logo for a rainbow flag or celebrating Pride if the rest of their actions are not aligned with the same purpose. And this cannot be a job only for the Communications Area: it is essential to train and then work with all teams in reviewing and agreeing with both the form and the content of internal and external communications.
Bridge the Gap is a consultancy on gender, diversity and inclusive communication. Its director Cintia González Oviedo affirms: “My recommendation is that you first work indoors on awareness and diversity, especially with leaders. There are many prejudices and ideas built in relation to the fact that working on the community’s issue is a fad or an ideology. The main challenge is how to go about translating this into an organizational position”.
Regarding transformation experiences, a study of the work environment developed after a process of change yielded more than positive results: “The biggest change occurred in peers’ recognition, the feeling of having greater well-being within the company. It was also very interesting that the idea of ‘zero tolerance for microaggressions’ or for comments in a joke format within the labor conversations began to expand, ” concludes González Oviedo.
With the current challenges posed by the pandemic on a global level, moods, priorities and team operations are undergoing more changes than ever. Leaders, their priorities and their setting an example are key to reinforcing diversity and inclusion, and thus allowing to raise a sense of belonging and teamwork.
Keep in mind:
• In a job interview you can discuss the company’s code of ethics and the actions that are carried out for diversity.
• Majorities, like heterosexual people, can actively contribute to building an inclusive space.
• Jokes and derogatory language are not minor issues, its homophobia.
• Do not assume a person’s identity: ask their name and with what pronouns they identify.