4 minute read

This conversation is part of our series, Walking the talk, which explores the diversity of the UK’s charities and foundations, with perspectives from both in and outside the sector. Find the full collection here. 

Diversity is a word used time and time again by companies and charities of all sizes, in an effort to appear more inclusive or more reflective of society. But more and more these so-called “diverse” people are rejecting it.

Why?

The answer is simple; because the value placed on diversity and what it really means in organisations is making the word appear like nothing more than a last ditch effort to not be dubbed “pale, male and stale” or accused of gender inequality (which are usually the most visible forms of diversity that companies tend to focus on).

Being two young British Asian women in business, we repeatedly face problems and have reservations about existing in these spaces. Our experience of diversity has ranged from ‘innocent ignorance’ to ‘deep biases’, making it more difficult as time goes on to be a part of this “business world”.  But we are aware we need to, because if we don’t who will those like us or the next generation see who represents them?

If the sector continues to hold on to traditional forms of power and systems, and is unwilling to extend seats at the table or share the power it possesses, the diversity problem will get bigger. It will become obvious that we are going to go around in circles to everyone looking in. Especially those diversity initiatives are aimed at.

As British-Pakistani actor and rapper Riz Ahmed put it:

Diversity is like an extra. It’s like the side and not the burger. It’s like ‘oh I’m just going to sprinkle a little diversity on that’…

What this essentially means is that diversity is not at the heart of it. That thing or that company is not built with diversity at the core, and that after-thought approach shows. This is why Riz Ahmed prefers the term ‘representation’ and we agree.

Representation tells us a company is reflective of the society we live in. It tells us we are present, we are included, we are a part of it. It’s not about just putting a woman in at senior level or a person of colour on your board for diversity’s sake, it is to do so for values sake, for impact, for perspective and for their experiences.

If every senior team or board is full of straight, old(er), white, men, how can that senior team or board make decisions that affect young people, people of colour, the LGBTQ+ community or those with a disability when there is no lived experience or representation present?

Lived experience brings the biggest value but is probably the most overlooked part of building teams and boards. We are an organisation entirely built on lived experience. So when people ask us what our strategy is to reach young women of colour because they are “hard to reach”, we simply look back in confusion. We are able to “reach” young women of colour because we are them. Our family is them. Our friends are them. Our community is them. Our environment is them. For us, they’re the easiest people to engage with because we have lived experience that allows us to connect from a shared place, not a business with a diversity agenda to fill.

Terms like ‘hard to reach’ are what perpetuate the issue, as the language suggests there is some sort of barrier on the side of ‘those’ people, when in fact many marginalised groups are purposely excluded. Therefore, they only become ‘hard to reach’ because society has created that complex and made it so. In actuality, these groups are right there and at the heart of most cities.

People with lived experience make companies feel more human, therefore more trusted and in turn, more representative. Once that happens, this diversity issue will begin solving itself because the work you do will now be thought-out from the perspectives needed to reach certain groups, impact more people and appeal to broader ranges of people who make up wider society.

If we look at people as people. If we understand that people from different backgrounds have unique experiences. If we value those perspectives and experiences and truly want to be an organisation that is more reflective of the society we live in, we will achieve our goals.

So, don’t ask yourself how you should become more ‘diverse’. Ask yourself how to become more reflective of the society you live in.

Common sense should take it from there. If not, ask as many questions as you need to and seek the people who can support you. Value them, pay them (this is a big thing – people’s lived experience isn’t free) and you’ll begin moving in the right direction.­

Amna Akhtar and Kiran Kaur

Amna Akhtar and Kiran Kaur are the Co-Founders of GirlDreamer, an empowerment platform for the next generation of women of colour. Through leadership development and community initiatives, they seek to upskill and build the confidence of these women so they can be, do and achieve more whilst building a more representative world in all areas of society.

With no formal training or degrees, they base their work off lived experience and use it to guide the change they wish to see. This approach has led them to propel GirlDreamer into a multi-award winning organisation creating award-winning initiatives and blogging platform that have transformed the lives of thousands. Some of their achievements include being featured on BBC, Channel 4 and ITV, becoming a TEDx speaker, creating one of the “Top 10 UK Millennial Blogs”, awarded Brum30Under30 (Birmingham’s version of Forbes 30 under 30), took part as European representatives with the Obama Foundation to meet President Obama and talk social change and have recently been awarded one of Creative England’s #CE50 2019 companies.

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