Kimberley McIntosh, Service Delivery Leader for Central and East London at Royal Mail, opened proceedings with a discussion on supporters and active allies. Supporters are people who understand the value and is generally supportive of diversity and inclusion, whereas active allies take a stand with concrete actions to address the diversity and inclusion agenda in the workplace and in the wider community. Recent high-profile movements, such as Me Too and Black Lives Matter, have highlighted prominent inequalities and have forced people in positions of power to reflect and make visible steps to address inequalities beyond a performative gesture.
Adoption of a systematic, business-led approach to inclusion and diversity is the appropriate road map to sustainable change. McIntosh identified several tangible actions to take in order to become an active ally, including doing background research, encouraging reverse mentoring, and having uncomfortable conversations. Acknowledging unconscious bias is difficult but necessary, and will ultimately lead to a more inclusive workplace.
For further reading, McIntosh recommended the book Don't Touch My Hair by Emma Dabiri, an intellectual investigation into the history and culture of being black in a majority-white society.
The topic of unconscious bias was also a feature of Rob Nolan’s presentation. Nolan, the chair of the CILT PRIDE professional network, noted that 1 in 7 HIV+ people avoid seeking healthcare for fear of discrimination – a particularly impactful statistic during a pandemic. He also stated that 8% of the LGBT+ community don’t have a safe place to live during lockdown, and last year saw suicidal calls to the LGBT Foundation increase by 25%.
Nolan highlighted several avenues to explore to make your business more LGBT+-friendly. On an internal level, the benefits of professional networking groups include being in a group with people from across your business who you wouldn’t normally interact with. This can lead to boosting your understanding of your company as a whole as well as forging new bonds with colleagues. Nolan also pointed to Stonewall’s resources that offer support and best practice recommendations on a national level.
The inclusion of your pronouns (e.g. he/him, she/her, they/them) in your email signature and your LinkedIn profile is an easy step that Nolan suggested to foster an inclusive environment for trans and gender non-conforming individuals. He noted that this can also lead to easier conversations on an international level as some names that are more masculine in the English language, for example, could have other gender identities associated with them elsewhere.
Nolan recommended two books that can broaden your understanding of the LGBT+ community: The Velvet Rage by Alan Downs, specifically about the struggles of gay men, and Straight Jacket by Matthew Todd, about the damage that heteronormativity can do to the LGBT+ community. For both books, he gave a content warning for in depth discussions of trauma and abuse.
Ulrike Just, Managing Director of Linde Materials Handling UK, shared her journey to the top job at one of the UK’s largest manufacturers of warehouse equipment. Although she graduated top of her class at university, the odds were still stacked against her: each of her male classmates had a 200x higher probability of ending up in a C-suite job than their female peers.
After she left university, Just entered the male-dominated spheres of mergers and acquisitions at a management consultancy company. She celebrated the merit-based culture, but stressed that there were barriers to her development further down the line when she was pursuing management level jobs. She was told that ‘men don’t like to buy from women’ when in an interview for a senior sales role, and her potential new boss reminded her that she would be working with numbers – despite Just’s impressive qualifications.
Just criticised the promotion of mediocre men over qualified women, suggesting that bosses often see more ‘potential’ in male colleagues. She encouraged women to step up and speak out, while acknowledging that level of confidence can sometimes be difficult to find. Just stressed that being more confident does not necessarily mean being more masculine. Her career took off when she fully embraced herself and her femininity, and she encouraged other women to do the same.
Focusing on barriers to progression for Muslim women working in logistics, Sunnah Habib, Transport Planner at Wincanton, shared the findings of her dissertation research. She began by highlighting that the logistics industry is one of the most male-dominated industries in the UK; only 1 in 5 workers are female.
Habib conducted interviews and surveys with Muslim women across the logistics sphere, and the results were eye-opening. 86% of respondents were not confident in conducting religious activities in the workplace, e.g. praying and fasting, and 98% were not involved with out of hours company networking events. Habib exemplified several self-imposed barriers, such as cultural expectations of women in the family and difficulty explaining professional needs to male colleagues, and pointed to organizational barriers that could be remedied. These include a male-dominated workforce, heavy alcohol consumption at social events, and lack of resources for religious differences (e.g. halal food and prayer rooms).
At Wincanton, Habib celebrated the initiative in reverse-mentoring. She spoke about her own experiences as a reverse-mentor for her manager, and how the positive conversations have improved life for Muslim women at the company. Habib suggested creating alcohol-free events outside of working hours in order to help promote socialising between all colleagues regardless of religion. Another practical solution that Habib identified was creating a room in the workplace specifically for prayer: having a space that is entirely dedicated to worship or quiet contemplation can benefit all colleagues.
Habib recommended the book Secrets of Divine Love by A Helwa, a guide exploring the passion and joy found in Islamic teachings.