There are so many monikers now being used to capture a very simple concept. That concept is at its very heart old, somewhat staid and lacking the current pizzazz and fanfare that seems so necessary to capture clicks in the highly connected social media world. The concept is respect. We can dress the idea up in new clothes, such as dignity, diversity, equality, equity, inclusion and so on, but in the end we arrive back to the same place – respect.
Without feelings of respect what is there to distinguish men from beasts?Confucius
I would argue that most people, if asked, would claim to be respectful. It’s such a fundamental aspect of the human condition that when challenged or called into question most people will react with horror at the mere suggestion that they are disrespectful.
But really? Universally?
How then are we to explain the world in its current state? How is it possible that we see discrimination on religious grounds? How about ethnic grounds? Sexual orientation anyone? Nationality?
We live in a world where the true nature of a disturbing portion of the global population is finding a voice through sympathetic politicians. In the past these politicians would have been considered extremists, but now sadly that has normalised.
It’s all too easy to point at the obvious world leaders and rail against the jingoistic rhetoric that pours venomously from them on an all too frequent basis. But we must recognise that, in the vast majority of cases, these people were elected. We must face the fact, unpalatable though it may be, that we as a global population either built the podium from which they now spread their particular form of intolerance, or through inaction allowed others to propel them to positions of power.
The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothingEdmund Burke*
*Note that the actual source of this quote is disputed see here. Regardless Burke was Irish, so I’m backing my boy!*
They didn’t create the environment in which they now thrive, they merely unearthed it and capitalised on it having found it. That means, sadly, that they are symptomatic but not causal.
What we actually have is a very superficial version of respect that covers a very narrow and parochial view of the world. How often to we see all of the trappings of politeness and respect as a veneer over a very deep seated belief in divisiveness?
And really, this is where the problem lives. Not in the often publicised outrageous events, but in the casually held beliefs and behaviours that are significantly more difficult to disrupt.
Naturally the many, many people with whom I have worked over the course of my career will maintain that we in the IT world are more of a meritocracy. Of course we welcome women, and of course gender and orientation have no bearing on your ability to work in IT, but this is often married with the sentiment that ‘there are just less women who want to be engineers’ as an explanation for the lack of diversity.
Sorry, but this is rubbish. The statistics are out there for you to review should you wish to. Simply put, regardless of where you are or who you are, you are more likely to read a job description that is intrinsically biased towards hiring a male and more likely to walk into an interview to be interviewed by a male when looking for work in the IT industry.
That simple fact creates an exclusionary environment that reflects back to university and third level education applications and from there further back to second level educational choices.
The situation will only change when we all change our minds and allow that new situation to permeate our behaviours and actions.
The Problem with Affirmative Action
There’s often push back against affirmative action as an approach to accelerating diversity and inclusion. Much of the resistance comes from the very people whose behaviour it seeks to change. We’ve seen affirmative action place demands on hiring practices in private business and public service; as a result it has allowed a degree of negativity to become part of the conversation. Ignoring the more radicalised views on affirmative action, we must rationally recognise it as a bias, and as such is contrary to the principle of a meritocracy.
So yes, as a long term strategy, affirmative action will not work. As a long term strategy it will sow the seeds of division that it seeks to eliminate because it will always leave the residual question on whether it was merit or affirmative action that produced the outcome.
But we must also recognise that without some impetus people will not naturally change. A few people can start a movement but sustained change demands a mind shift that needs support for an extended period to take root. So affirmative action is needed to allow the necessary time for change, but then we will all have to move on.
We’re going to have to go fairly deep on this issue. The irony of this entire article is that there should be no place for diversity, inclusion, equality or any of the other coat hangers on which we hang our efforts and opinions. No need because it externalises the concepts and makes them separate to ourselves.
We need to shift our thinking on this completely. We need to take a long hard look at the casual biases that litter the way we think and one by one eliminate them.
We shouldn’t need to be told to respect people. But we do, and others do.
Whether we’re in leadership positions or part of a team we must take positive and active steps to systematically root disrespect out of our environment. We should hold ourselves to the challenge of eliminating the need for diversity programmes by changing our beliefs and our minds. It takes work, but the result will be worth the effort.