Ticking boxes won’t change cultures

Talat Yaqoob (Ideas for Equality) on the need to move beyond rhetoric and for actual change against inequality and racism.

Performative solidarity is all over social media right now. Companies, institutions and public bodies who have a poor record (or no record) on equality and diversity have been posting statements of support for the Black Lives Matter movement Some of this will be a genuine want to show solidarity, much of this will be led by feelings of obligation, but regardless, largely, these statements have been filled with empty rhetoric; words of empathy, reiteration of the bare bones equalities statement written somewhere in a strategy or on a website. I would be more likely to take notice of, and accept, statements of support which included some self-reflection, which expressed what the organisation was doing wrong, what it needed to improve and how it planned to do something about inequality and discrimination.

We exist in a society where racism is institutionalised. Organisations are microcosms of society, they don’t exist in isolation from the inequalities that are deeply embedded around us. That means organisations will replicate these inequalities unless serious and proactive effort is taken to counter them.

This is not the time to hastily book some training sessions to appear proactive. This is the time to think more deeply and take steps towards system change.

Across different roles in my career, I have been responsible for training delivery across a range of issues around equality and diversity, and one utterly frustrating constant has been the lack of investment in evidence based culture change work and real interventions that create systemic change. There continues a stubborn and unhelpful notion that a half hour talk on the Equality Act is going to change any attitudes or behaviours to create a more equal society or workplace. I have repeatedly been asked to delivery training in a lunch session to “help create equality”…how can anyone be taking seriously, or even understand the depths of inequality and discrimination faced by groups across society, if they think any change can happen through a half hour slideshow?

For change to happen, power needs to be redistributed (no, it’s not just something to talk about in terms of traditional politics; the politics of this comes into play in our workplaces). That does not happen overnight, that does not happen in a training session, because it will not be easily accepted by those who have always had power. Change requires lived experience expertise, real investment, time commitment and a strategy that has not been created by only those already at the top. A multilevel, long-term and whole organisation approach is needed which has at its core, genuine co-production and accountability.

A one hour induction or an online presentation to tick box that you’ve understood equality is not enough, it’s not anything. Too often I have seen this happen, and rather than have any positive impact, these types of tick box exercises create apathy and disengagement. They give people a get-out clause to say “I did the training, so I can’t be biased”.

Organisations need to work for it; at a societal, organisational and individual level. Training can make a difference, but only if it is done right and done along with other, bolder steps that are not easy, but are necessary. The system isn’t working, so it needs to change from root to branch – what does that actually mean for your organisation (no matter which sector its in)? What needs to be scrapped? What assumptions are embedded that need challenged? Who made the rules and who was excluded?

In the work that I do around equality and attitude change, I believe these things matter most:

  1. Lived experience needs to have parity without being taken for granted – development of plans, strategies or training to create more inclusive workplaces should be developed with the expertise of those with lived experience of institutionalised inequality. It should be co-produced, but crucially this input should not be provided free or as an addition to someone’s role (e.g. the woman of colour in the office who is the project manager, but now also has “equalities co-ordinator” added to her role in a volunteer capacity). This expertise needs to be valued from the start of the process by the organisation, both in status and in pay.
  2. There should be discomfort in the learning and changing – materials and discussions need to be challenging, needs to make someone ask questions about the society around them, the status quo and their own complicity.
  3. Interventions needs to be targeted at the level of the audience; jargon free and accessible.
  4. Accountability and responsibility has to be at the centre – There needs to be follow up to interventions; individuals/organisations need to take responsibility to do more once they leave the room, targets needs to be published and those inside the organisation with lived experience must be around the decision making table on this, able to hold the organisation to account and review whether the workplace has actually improved.
  5. Training needs to have a practical element – When we talk about societal inequality, we are talking about something that is in everything and is everywhere. Much of the equality training on offer can leave people knowing more but doing nothing. Interventions needs to focus on change. It should be clear why the organisation is working on equality, what it hopes it will change and what everyone’s role is in creating that change.

These are just a few reflections which have been on my mind as I have scrolled through the social media feeds of organisations over the last few days. But I don’t want to see the performance of equality, I want to see real action on dismantling the status quo that sustains the inequality that is actively hurting so many in our society.

Comments (8)

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  1. Daniel Raphael says:

    Ms. Yaqoob’s reflections led me immediately to think of the idea of “accompaniment” as practiced and articulated by activists in Latin America. The idea has been articulated–and employed as a practice–by the lifelong radical activist and scholar, Staughton Lynd. He and his activist/author wife moved to Youngstown, Ohio, during a time when workers were losing their jobs because their firms were being sold off and then shut down. He had studied the requisite applicable labor laws, and served as a legal resource for workers who struggled to buy and operate the steel mills that had employed them. Accompanying: Pathways to Social Change is one of his books that addresses this approach to personal/social learning and solidarity; a more theoretical–but richly anecdotal–reflection on this is contained in the book Wobblies and Zapatistas: Conversations on Anarchism, Marxism and Radical History, a dialogue between Lynd and Andrej Grubacic. This latter is, to me, the single best volume of theory I have ever read–and which correspondingly occupies a permanent place on my bookshelf as a reference.

    Thank you for this thoughtful essay.

  2. Alex Kashko says:

    Fair points.

    1. Inequality, to point out the obvious, is not just about skin colour or biological sex or self identified gender. It’s the white cleaner in the council house versus the CEO in a mansion. Its the nurse versus the “lady of the Manor” or the teacher versus the investment banker/stock exchange trader whos ego is bound up with their paypacket..

    2. Now I think about it we should try to define inequality, and not just economic inequality.

  3. Alex Kashko says:

    We have had inequality in society ever since we were chimpanzees. You won’t get rid of it. Even in egalitarian left groups hierarchies form and some love the power more than the goal

    we need to work out how to use inequality or all sorts for the good of all.

    we have had in-groups and out-groups for ever. The commandment “Thou shalt not kill” originally meant “thou shalt not kill a fellow Jew” – Outsiders were fair game.

    We see that today as well. In society we tend to form tribes. This has good and bad. We need to develop the good and ensure the bad atrophy.

    What I see in a lot of political discussions, especially on the left is undefined terms and meaningless platitudes with no real analysis. I admit to not being a professional philosopher but if I can read something like The Hacker Manifesto and fail to see anything meaningful in it but can understand Mary Midgley’s work or the work of David Chalmers papers on Consciousness I feel entitled to dismiss most writing of this type as meaningless.

    In emotionally sensitive areas like this we need clear thinking not slogans and waffle.

    Sorry for the rant, but I am worried that the debate will descend to shouting slogans at each other.

    1. “We have had inequality in society ever since we were chimpanzees.”

      “we need to work out how to use inequality or all sorts for the good of all.”

      I dont mean to be rude but this is dangerous gibberish.

    2. Blair says:

      From the book of Genesis

      16Unto the woman he said, I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children; and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee.

      A heritage that has stood the test of time along with the other recorded works in the Torah / Holy Bible.

      Has everyone been deceived or just not understood the logic behind the decision.

      It is time we considered all religions as disruptive & dangerous. We need our government to operate isolated from the influence of preachers but in keeping with the Old & New Testament to enable everyone to progress together more naturally in-line with The Lord’s Prayer.

      Don’t confuse me with my namesake Tony Blair of New Labour his New Labour Party 3rd way just screwed up education systems!

      BREXIT needs to be renegotiated. Boris needs to get rid of Domonic Cummings & start listening to Talat Yaqoob. We the people need to update & upgrade our United Kingdom & its operating systems.

  4. john w shaw says:

    Yip, give us a sound bite, then keep giving us your money!

  5. SusanGarrard says:

    Ms Yaqoob, Your reflections have highlighted so many wrongs within a workplace when it comes to dealing with equality and diversity. I have been following a petition on Change.org called deeannspeaks and it is ludicrous how this woman has been treated. It is apparent that she has had to deal with major inequality issues. I applaud you for pointing out so many failures on behalf of the employer not investing enough time and money in promoting equality and diversity training. I was mortified to read that a senior fishery officer employed by Marine Scotland Compliance called black people ni**ers and that they should not be allowed to have children, they should be hung and murdered. I have written to many within the Scottish Government and I have not had one response but there is a lot of media attention on the Scottish Government standing in solidarity against racism. I hope you don’t mind but I would like to send them a copy of your reflections for them to “reflect” on what they will do moving forward with the issues that exist today.

  6. FHM says:

    This is my box :
    “the woman of colour in the office who is the project manager, but now also has “equalities co-ordinator” added to her role in a volunteer capacity)
    Having raised my head above the parapet for just one issue, the results were so dire , I left .

    The idea which I have been pushing for , is a film( with actors)….based in the type of workplace in question….from a BAME point of view…which includes
    The raised eyebrows
    The impatience when asking help from a more junior team member jeopordising system/processes /team work
    The rules which are flexible with others but consistently applied to you
    The ” is that you raising the race card” joke
    The constant being made to feel “the problem” as others react to you differently ( Clients/patients) so overlooked for opportunities
    Politeness modesty being mistaken for in-confidence
    “I’m fine ” as possibly meaning “I am too scared of the consequences”
    Showing the effect on other POC when another is punished for speaking up
    The hurt when trying to join in a conversation and one making a comment which isolates you from the team
    The sentences about moany smelly agitating oversensitive ” “people
    The incredulous ” so you want a job at a band X without managing people ” when many other in the office do
    The “its really simple , just go and ask ” , when you know , for you, it will not be simple
    The asking a white person to go with you or copy them in because no on takes you seriously
    The taking of any good ideas and running with it
    The surveys which ask the wrong questions with reports published smugly saying there is no problem
    Data not available when ask for it as no one has bothered to collect it
    The constantly being sidelined when trying to raise a valid point
    Seeing much less experienced , less qualified people progressing seamlessly and becoming your boss
    All leading to a dysfunctional stressed team ….just an idea for a short film, I think would be more useful to show that we see and call out that behaviour than completing a tick box

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