Girish Menon: To establish truly diverse and inclusive organisations, we must understand the exclusionary factors at play

Addressing issues with diversity can be complex, but that should not prevent us from exploring the barriers

Girish Menon
Girish Menon

There has been a lot of discussion about diversity and inclusion in the sector recently, and it is only natural that we explore why this is such a big issue. One obvious answer is that diversity is lacking in the sector, especially at senior levels. Another is that there are exclusionary factors at play, which need to be tackled to ensure greater levels of inclusion.

In my personal experience of being at the receiving end of such behaviours, and from speaking to others, there are different types of exclusionary factors contributing to our diversity problem.

Some are personal (as felt by the individual), some are contextual (where some specific settings can be exclusionary), some are structural (caused by the configuration of organisations and their own processes and systems) and some are systemic (rooted in behaviours and culture).

In the real world, these categories are not neat and clear-cut, but interlinked. Instead of highlighting each type of exclusion – in other words, those caused by gender, race, religion and so on – I want to focus on four examples of exclusionary factors.

Recruitment

People face a wealth of different entry barriers when applying for jobs. Some of these relate to gender, race, religion, class and education, factors that are more identifiable when someone applies for a role and provides a full CV.

If a candidate is fortunate enough to overcome these barriers, there might be exclusions on the basis of some physical or cognitive disabilities, introversion or linguistic grasp, which might not be significant or relevant to the role the person has applied for.

Hierarchy

Hierarchy is often about power and authority. Some form of hierarchy exists in all organisations, but these structures sometimes result in voices not being heard or in views being marginalised because they are expressed by people who are relatively “junior”. There could also be power struggles between different departments and teams (based on who has more staff and finances, for example) that can result in some teams feeling marginalised and hence excluded.

Behaviours

We all relate very differently to situations based on several factors, including our own temperament, attitude and resilience. That might be quite legitimate in many situations, but we don’t always realise the impact it has on others. We can come across as passive-aggressive, intimidating or even bullying. People draw their experiences from the verbal and non-verbal expressions that form part of our behaviours.

Culture

Organisational culture is something a person experiences as soon as they step into the charity. It is broadly described as “how things are done here”. Even if an organisation seeks to build an open, vibrant culture, some people experience the organisation very differently and feel that the culture results in them being excluded and discriminated against.

In discussions on diversity and inclusion, we often talk about intersectionality, which is about factoring in the overlapping identities of an individual to understand the impact of the disadvantages or prejudices they experience. These include, but are not limited to, gender, race, religion, class, disability and sexuality.

Equally, the various factors mentioned above can aggravate the exclusion that people face, particularly where organisational processes collude with individual identities to create a web of powerful exclusionary factors.

It is really important to understand this, because although individual identities very often cannot be changed, organisations can certainly change systems, processes and culture.

I’m laying some of these factors out because addressing diversity and inclusion is extremely complex and hard to get right for all people across all contexts. It can be quite a utopian quest, but that should not stop us from understanding the factors that cause exclusion and exploring various options to mitigate or eliminate them completely.

Striving for genuine inclusion is the right thing to do, especially for the not-for-profit sector. We pride ourselves on being mission-oriented, working around core human values that are liberal and progressive, and making a collective commitment to a world that is safer, more just, more equal and more tolerant.

In my subsequent blogs, I will aim to explore each of the factors above with some examples that I have seen or experienced. And I will try to explore these through different forms of diversity in trying to follow a more intersectional understanding.

Girish Menon is chief executive of ActionAid

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