By Lindsey Ambrose, Equality, Diversity & Human Rights Lead, St Andrew’s Healthcare
2015 has been full of fantastic surprises for me – I won the Excellence in Diversity Award (Diversity Champion), led the submission for St Andrew’s Healthcare, a shortlisted finalist in the National Diversity Awards, supported the submission of another shortlisted finalist, and just found I’m in the Global Diversity List Top 50 Diversity Professionals in Industry. Now, I’m flattered to be asked to write for the Diversity Group. I think people have heard about how years ago I helped rescue people in a war, and may know that I’ve helped people in the UK facing homophobia and threats of honour-based violence. So I want to talk about something else, to share my personal thoughts – only mine, not on behalf of anyone else – on some challenges I’ve found of working in “equality and diversity”, and to introduce you to “Leo the Lion”.
You’re reading this blog, so I guess if I were to ask what you think of when you hear the words “equality” and “diversity”, you might think in terms of what this area of work aims to do and sometimes celebrates success in achieving through awards and benchmarking audits. Over the years, working in local government, partnerships with business, with community groups and in the courts, I’ve kept a watchful eye on media coverage influencing what the public might perceive about equality and diversity issues. I followed the previous government’s “red tape challenge” and discussions about whether to implement, or even to scrap, the Equality Act 2010. It often strikes me that the world of equality and diversity is one which struggles to communicate – of all things, inclusively. My experience is that many people would perceive “equality” and “diversity” to be the meaningless domain of bureaucratic “bean-counters”, or think of “political correctness” and punitive attacks on their cultural identity. They are less likely to realise that working inclusively may help make cost-effective, smart business decisions and enhance their reputation as an employer and as a member of the community. They may be unaware of the stress and poorer performance associated with feeling excluded, unwelcomed and in the minority.
Most people I’ve ever met want to consider themselves decent people. Not all might describe themselves as ‘caring’, but whatever their political colours, their appetite for risk in business, their offender history, or their mental disorder, and so on, my experience has been that most would not want to feel others judged them to be ‘uncaring’ or ‘nasty’. That ought to mean that organisations– private, public or voluntary sector – easily mainstream and integrate equality and diversity, creating inclusive cultures and practice. But I find there can be a language barrier and people often don’t realise that they don’t know and need to know about how to work inclusively and accessibly. Good intentions at the heart of equality and diversity work risk being thwarted by the jargon “doing equality analysis”, “negative or positive impact”, “significant differential effect” to name just a few. People can react to the language of equality and diversity as humans are hard-wired to do when stressed – “fight” (arguing it’s all bureaucratic red tape nonsense from “the PC Brigade”) or “flight” (claiming it’s not relevant to their work and trying to avoid it). From those who speak the equalities language, and/or who are more diversity aware, I have often heard that some organisations’ proposed courses of action or ways of working seem thoughtless, even discriminatory, failing to show required “due regard” and with seemingly little or no interest in their equality duties. Sometimes this leads to tension, emotional heightening and threats to organisational reputation, going to the media or the courts – and sometimes, sadly, this is necessary to stop or overturn bad decisions. Sometimes too the equalities jargon, recitals of legal duties and human reactions to it, seem to me to over-complicate and detract from what could have been a friendlier, more effective learning and improvement experience. There’s a risk of reinforcing initial fight or flight feelings rather than achieving inclusive results that can help everyone.
Over many years, I’ve learned from working with people of all ages, abilities and disabilities, different faiths and cultural backgrounds, the value of “translating” – of making complicated communication simple – whether it’s “council speak”, “equalities speak” or anything else. I’ve learned from people in many different types of role who are not diversity professionals to look for hidden emotion behind illogical-seeming fight or flight behaviours and to respond to the emotion rather than what a person might be saying. I prefer to say things like “Let’s meet up for a chat, over coffee if you like”, “don’t worry – we can make this painless and easy for you”. I meet in places people feel safe, not overheard by people they fear would think them ignorant if they admitted feeling out of their depth. People often emerge from our meetings not just calm, but full of enthusiasm for making change and improvement, able to ask for what they need, with a clear plan of what they want to do next. Some even admit “I was dreading this” because of all that equalities jargon and popular myths about this area of work, but say that they “get it” now. They are keen to learn how to be more inclusive by engaging with people about particular diversity risks and opportunities. It is a pleasure to see them then integrating diversity and inclusion in their work. It makes my day when I find the person I helped has referred a colleague to me because they found it so helpful – and that they’ve helped that colleague to get started because of their own positive learning and improvement experience. Times like those I can see organisational capacity is building, and culture shifting.
So, about that Lion? What’s it got to do with any of this? Many of the patients I work with have very low English literacy and find abstract concepts difficult. They have taught me a lot as to help them to be aware of everyone’s rights and responsibilities, I have had to go beyond plain English, for example reducing information to Easy Read and British Sign Language and recognising the value of images to convey powerful messages and meanings.
Getting information in ways they can understand it has transformed people’s ability and enthusiasm to engage with equality and diversity – and to take the steps to achieve inclusion. Now, Leo is helping do this –for patients, for staff and even community groups and other organisations – removing barriers, getting people to get curious, become diversity aware and inclusive – to become equality allies.
Decorated by patients to represent equality and diversity, named by patients, on a safari trail around the charity’s hospitals decided by patients, accompanied by themed diversity displays to which people can contribute as equality allies, being the centrepiece of pledge sign ups to show personal support for diversity and inclusion, doing photoshoots at events – including senior staff and the local Police Chief Constable – with future bookings for guest appearances at anti-bullying, LGBT equality conferences, and the launch of supported employment facilities, on T-shirts, stickers and with his own intranet site, Leo is St Andrew’s Healthcare’s diversity and inclusion mascot. Some organisations introduced to Leo are now looking to have their own Leo too!