Rainbow cake showing diversity and inclusion

From School to the Workplace: Lessons in Inclusion

This week, I spent a couple of hours away from my day job, sat in my child’s primary school hall, full of school leaders, governors and teachers. They were gathered together for a workshop by an not-for-profit organisation called ‘Diversity Role Models’. I was there as a parent volunteer, hoping to add some value to a working group tasked with writing and communicating a new Relationships Policy – as directed by the UK Government. 

Unlike the workplace, schools don’t have an agenda to build diversity per se, as for the most part that is in the hands of pre-defined admissions policies. Instead, their job is to focus on ensuring inclusion so each member of their diverse student body reaches their potential and moves onto the next stage in their education full of confidence and in a positive state of mental and physical well-being.

I am part of AchieveForum’s team working on helping clients to lead a gender balanced culture, and the topic of diversity and inclusion is often at the forefront of my mind. As the school workshop quickly set about discussing sensitive, even life-changing topics, I found myself inspired and intrigued by a number of commonalities between the work being undertaken in schools, and the efforts we are making in the world of business.

In a way, nothing changes. We need to apply the same principles for adults as we do for children. Here are some of my take-aways.

1. A holistic approach to inclusion

At AchieveForum we’ve been talking a lot about this from the perspective of gender balance at work. We believe that getting the basics right when it comes to inclusive leadership behaviors is essential if the ‘jigsaw’ of equity has any chance of nearing completion. Policies and procedures won’t actually change the culture unless inclusion is purposefully woven through the organisation. 

As the conversation in the school hall turned to a lively brainstorming of ideas as to how teachers can apply principles of inclusion in all curriculum subjects, it struck me how critical it is to adopt a holistic approach from this young age. Mathematics: make sure gender stereotypes are not prevalent in math problems – it’s not just Jack and Ahmed that are playing with 13 red cars and 8 blue cars. History: highlight famous LGBT+ inventors and politicians. Art: ask small children to draw a family and think of the different forms a loving family can take. Literacy: carefully select books that tell stories of female heroes and the joys of celebrating difference. The daily timetable is an oasis of opportunity to promote inclusivity. In the same way, every team meeting, every new hire, every new project is a chance to take a step back and consider if we are truly encouraging diversity of thought.

2. The power of words

‘Stick and stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me.’ A common playground mantra when I was young that has become as irrelevant as the toys that used to occupy my time. Words are powerful and can divide or unite us in a second. 

Our session spent a considerable amount of time talking about words. Do we all know the meaning of emerging definitions of gender and sexual orientation? We need to take time to understand the precise words if we are to understand each other’s preferences and sensitivities. 

This is not about adults teaching children, we are all in this together. As a society, our awareness is rightfully building, albeit it inconsistently at present. We must open our eyes to the fact human beings are complex creatures and it’s no longer acceptable to base our world around ‘normal’ and ‘other’. And it’s not just about the words we use to describe and label one another, we need to carefully consider the words we use in general conversation, and always be conscious of how our choice of words impacts those around us.

3. Courage and the fear of backlash

It’s interesting how, when discussing diversity and inclusion, the conversation often veers towards protecting the feelings of those who are not the ones feeling excluded. There seems to be widespread discomfort in deliberately tipping the balance in favor of minorities. The concept of positive discrimination in order to achieve a level playing field is highly contentious. 

In the workplace, the words of Sheryl Sandberg are powerful. ‘One day there will no female leaders. There will just be leaders.’ Any advocates of gender balance and equality would agree with this sentiment, but, arguably, we won’t achieve that unless we draw attention to the existing inequalities and discriminatory behaviors. If the resulting actions seem to favor those who identify with the ‘protected characteristic’ (under the Equality Act 2010 in Europe there are nine such characteristics) in order to achieve equality, then, perhaps, so be it.

Back in the school hall, there is an overwhelming sense of fear that by calling out the rife discrimination towards certain communities – notably the LGBT+ community – there will be backlash. How should teachers deal with negative reactions from parents? How does school teachings about inclusion and openness align with the teachings at home and in the community? It takes courage to speak up. We need to build courage by communicating clearly and frequently. It’s no longer acceptable to hide behind workplace banter and playground jibes if they make those around us feel isolated.

4. Sit comfortably and I will begin …

Perhaps the strongest learning from the school workshop was that we’re never too old for a story. Much has been written about the power of storytelling in business; and this is never more relevant than when applied to inclusivity initiatives. Neuroscience tells us that character-based stories encourage release of oxytocin, which is proven to result in people being more willing to help others. 

During the workshop we heard very personal stories from the speakers, about their own experiences of feeling isolated and discriminated against. And also about the moments that changed their lives, when they felt the sense of belonging and acceptance they yearned for and deserved. Such an approach can hardly fail to evoke an emotional reaction. As we tell our stories, and as we openly listen to those of others, we understand one another on a deeper level; and adjust our attitudes and behaviors accordingly.

Through storytelling, we not only develop our understanding and tolerance of one another, but the subjects of the story act as role models to those that relate to them. Role modelling is a powerful tool in the battle to achieve a level playing field. It enables us to build an inner strength to be authentic, confident that we don’t need to be something we are not in order to be accepted, included and to fulfill our potential. Leaders of all genders who succeed without forcing themselves to adopt stereotypical masculine traits. Brave children who acknowledge and refuse to hide their true selves.

5. Stick to your values

Another common rhetoric in both schools and the workplace is that of values. Easy to talk about, not so easy to bring to life. My daughter’s school ‘does values’ extremely well. The children co-created them, personified them, drew them and then had a graphic designer work her magic to create lovable characters. The real achievement is that not only can all the children reel off all seven names in as many seconds, but many of us parents know them too. 

As we embarked on the first meeting of the school working group for the new relationships policy, several of these values immediately sprung to mind. Friendship. Respect. Courage, Equality. At work or school, the same principle applies: stick to the values you set and really use them when working on projects, new initiatives and problem-solving. 

6. Don’t go it alone

The school in question had invited teachers, senior leadership teams and governors from a range of schools in the local area. For me, collaboration in such efforts is so important. Perhaps for obvious reasons, it seems more acceptable for the not-for-profit sector to reach out to peers for support. There is a culture of sharing approaches and plans in order to raise standards across the board. This is a concept lagging in the corporate world where competition dominates.

However, when it comes to diversity and inclusion, we need to look beyond our own companies and sectors to look at what’s really working for others, and how we can replicate and improve on it to create a more gender balanced, open and inclusive society.

7. A sense of purpose

The new Relationships Policy for UK schools does not have to be in place until next year. The reason we were gathered so far ahead of the deadline was to help schools get ahead of the game. If it’s a policy change that leaders truly believe in, subject to time and resources, why delay? Those in the room were passionate about the topic, keen to help their schools become Early Adopters of the new approach.

The learning from this is that a sense of purpose is critical if such initiatives are to succeed. When the employee base is fully on board, with a deep understanding of the ‘why’; and how they can play their part, change can really happen.

Inclusion matters. We already know that. The realization is that learning never stops. The worlds of business and education are not so different, we’re just looking at the issue through a different lens.

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