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Exploring Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging through Coaching

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Exploring Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging through Coaching

by Chris Woodman


As an international coaching practice, we see a many dimensions to Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging reflecting the different cultures, nationalities and political systems around the globe.

We coach in the US, UK, Continental Europe, Middle East, Africa, Asia and Australia.  Personally, I have coached people based in Kenya, China, Australia, India, Spain, US, Dubai, Italy and UK over recent years.   Suffice it to say, the approach to D,E,I and B means very different things in each of those places.

That is why we think the principles are important because the experience in different parts of the world is so varied.  Language is important, so here are some definitions:

  • Diversity is about heterogeneity focusing on a range of different people, experience and perspectives.
  • Equity gives each employee fair and equal access, opportunities, and advancements, regardless of their diversity background.
  • Inclusion ensures everyone on the team is treated fairly and respectfully, valuing and recognising our differences.
  • Belonging is about people feeling accepted in the workplace. Every team member should feel that their perspective is valued and adds something useful. Belonging to a team implies that the person is valued and is needed, trusted and wanted.

Some observations and thought starters for exploration rather than coming to answer or conclusions:

  • ‘Othering’ is the practice of excluding persons who do not fit the norm of the social group, which is a version of the self. All of us are susceptible to this and it does not just include those with protected characteristics such as ethnicity, sexual orientation, religious belief (although they are important examples) but other aspects that make people different.  A good example might be accent in the UK.  Prof Honey’s book ‘Does Accent Matter?’  (1991) explored the way in which people were judged on their accent which linked to class, educational, regional and national prejudices.   Some people have a need to feel better than others or feel the need to be with their own ‘type’ to the exclusion of others either directly or indirectly.
  • International Perspective. While ‘othering’ happens in all societies, it takes different forms in different countries.  In some parts of India the caste system still prevails, in Saudia Arabia gender roles are still very polarised and in the UK still struggles with class and the impact of immigration (from the former Empire, Europe and modern migration) and the US with racial equality.
  • Western Perspective. The ideas of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging are largely a Western phenomenon and are not necessarily universally accepted by other countries, cultures, religions and belief systems.   This is important to understand for international businesses and for international coaches.
  • Socioeconomics is important. One of the biggest statistical predictors of life chances and opportunities is the socioeconomic background of the person.  It influences education, health and aspirations.  Snobbery is as much a prejudice as racism or sexism.
  • Nature vs Nurture. There is evidence for both nature and nurture in the way that society is organised and works.  It is probably most evident in debates around the relationship between sex and gender.  However, the debate has been politicised with those who want to attribute all differences to socialisation in society and those who want to justify the status quo as part of the natural outcome of biological or evolutionary differences.  Our thoughts are that we should remain empiricists and evidence based and recognise that we are learning more all the time.
  • Equal Opportunity vs Equal Outcome. Statistics and damned statistics.  When we look at the statistics on diversity at a national level or at an organisation level or within a profession/vocation they represent the outcome of millions of decisions by individual people (in the past).  Very few professions or organisations have a mix of employees in direct proportion to the population that they operate within.  Is the goal of diversity initiatives to produce such a situation for every case?  Must we have 50% of construction workers female?  Must 50% of nurses be male?   People have their own preferences and choices.  Some people also have expectations placed on them by people around them on what they do and this may affect their choices.  One of the most important things is that people really do have an equal opportunity to fulfil their potential and achieve their ambitions and are not prevented by unfounded prejudice or social pressure.  It is often clear that where underrepresentation is most obviously rife and not a simple matter of choice.
  • ‘The Devil is in the Detail’. In the UK, 1% of architects describe themselves as black.  (in the US the percentage is 2%).    If you are an HR person hiring architects and want to increase the representation of minorities in your organisation it is going to be challenging, particularly if every other firm also wishes to have a more diverse practice.  The root cause will need to be addressed from role models, aspirations of young black people, educational opportunities, internships, outreach by architects to schools, college and university selection processes etc. to address what is clearly a long-term issue and one for the profession as well as the organisations that hire architects.  I was recruiting architects back in the 1980’s and here we are, over 30 years later, with very little progress being made.
  • Include Everyone. There is a temptation to target or demonise those perceived to be more privileged whether it be the ‘white male, pale and stale males’ or the middle-class white women labelled as ‘Karens’.  It’s a cheap shot.  We do not move diversity forward by insulting or excluding people.   If we are to create better workplaces, we all need to be involved.  If you are in a room with 100 people in London (drawn at random), at least half will be women, a significant percentage will be from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, a significant percentage from ethnic minorities and different nationalities, some will be gay, someone may be transitioning, some with be neurodiverse and others may have disabilities including mental health problems.  Many will have multiple dimensions of these characteristics.  The number of people in the room who for whom life has been one of complete privilege and advantage may be quite small.  Even Prince Harry, who lost his mother when he was very young, will have things in his life that have not been easy.
  • Diversity does not mean lowering standards.  The standards for becoming a senior leader, or getting a place at Oxford and Cambridge, or becoming a pilot, or an astrophysicist do not have to be lowered.  Rather selection decisions need to be made on criteria that are relevant to being successful in the role. Or in the case of Oxbridge, successful academic study at the highest level (there will be plenty of state school educated people who can meet these criteria but may have been excluded in the past). It useful to challenge what we assume constitutes ‘merit’ in different roles and what standards are critical to the role and those that are assumed but have little impact on successful performance.  It’s also important to explore potential, the future capability and capacity of the person.

In coaching issues of Diversity and Inclusion are very much part of the process.  The coach and the coachee bring their own background and history into the room.  Sometimes coachees are explicit that they want to be coached by someone of a certain gender or background – sometimes similar because the coach might understand better or sometimes different to bring challenge and different perspectives into the coaching.  In Team Coaching, the diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging in the team may well be an important dimension of the team’s development.

Sometimes Diversity and Inclusion is at the heart of a coaching session – exploring the issues in a safe space – to enable the coachee to explore those issues as they relate personally, in their role or in the broader team and organisation.  Our programme Exploring Diversity and Inclusion through coaching is designed to explicitly explore these issues.

Sometimes Diversity and Inclusion is in the background of a coaching assignment.  Assumptions, beliefs, experiences and thoughts that are influencing the coaching conversation and thinking without being explicitly referenced.   It may be that part of the coaches role is to surface these issues to enable a full exploration of an issue, topic or dynamic that is present in the room.


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