Are ED&I initiatives just a box-ticking exercise?

20th July 2021

I was due to give an update at my company’s staff meeting about the progress the team had been making on our EDI initiatives. I was nervous about the slot, as I really wanted our presentation to be meaningful, when so often EDI can be seen as a ‘box-ticking’ exercise.

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I’d been to lots of really inspiring talks and workshops on EDI over the last year, but I couldn’t help but think that the people attending these perhaps weren’t the people that needed reaching the most. It’s surely the people who don’t think they have anything to learn or aren’t interested in learning that we need to be reaching. How do we reach them when they don’t show up?

Half an hour before my presentation, I realised I had a unique opportunity to say something more meaningful than the statistics and anecdotes we’d gathered for our slide pack. The staff meeting would be attended by everyone at the company, not just those interested in EDI. I proceeded to jot down an experience I had had a few years previous which demonstrated (to me at least) the importance of well thought-out EDI initiatives that can make a real difference, in the hope that it would at least be a bit more interesting than another death by PowerPoint! Here it is:

At a previous company I sat in a room full of system engineers. There were about 15 men and 3 women. There were Lord of the Rings memes on the walls, huddles of people laughing at YouTube videos and an endless supply of chocolate bars. I sat near a guy who we’ll call Graham*. He was always busying himself re-configuring his IT to achieve the ‘optimal set-up’ (and was the first person I called upon to help me fix mine!). He was a well-respected infrastructure engineer and Drupal wizard (among many other things that I didn’t understand).

It was at this time that I was starting to become interested in EDI, seeing the lack of women around me and in leadership positions. So I signed up to the EDI initiatives offered at the company, including the LGBTQ+ ally initiative. On signing up, we were given a rainbow lanyard to wear, along with a name tag that could be put on your desk to demonstrate that you were an ally.

A few weeks later, on one of our many team nights out in a dingy pub in London, Graham bought a drink over to me and proceeded to confide in me that in all other areas of his life, with his family and with his friends outside of work, he was not Graham.

She was Georgia.

I was so touched that Georgia had felt comfortable opening up to me like this, and was in awe of her courage. I have no doubt that she’d have come out and said it at some point, but I do wonder if it had something to do with the companies ally initiative and the ability this gave us to demonstrate visible allyship (enabled by the brilliant EDI team at the company). It may of course also have had something to do with the beers we’d consumed… Either way, I saw this as a massive compliment and a huge act of bravery from Georgia.

Nonetheless, initially it was difficult for me to get my head around, having been completely sheltered from someone who identified by a gender that was not the same gender they were given at birth. It took some time for me to see Graham as Georgia, but she was so understanding about this and openly reassured me that she knew mistakes would be made and that was ok.

I couldn’t imagine how hard it must have been for her to have been leading a double life like that. For the people that she worked with, who thought they knew her, to not know her at all.

It took several more weeks for Georgia to work with the EDI team and HR to get her name changed on her email and records, and soon she was ready to send out an email to the rest of the office announcing who she really was. I was nervous for her as she hit ‘send’ and an email pinged around the open-plan office while Georgia was sat surrounded by those who were about to receive it. She was so brave and it turned out really well. No-one seemed to care, and soon people forgot altogether that we’d ever not known her as Georgia.

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My biggest takeaway from this moment was, just because we don’t see something, doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. There may be people in your company, people perhaps sat right next to you, or within the clients that you work with, who are leading double lives like this. It could be their gender identity, or their sexuality. It might be the responsibilities they have back home of caring for a loved one, or the day to day fluctuations of someone’s mental health.

The second biggest takeaway for me is the importance of having visible allyship. This will be different now that many of us are no longer working from offices. With no-one wearing rainbow lanyards and no after-work drinks, we need to be making extra efforts to demonstrate allyship and create an environment for these discussions. And we need to be designing these situations into our processes and procedures so we aren’t caught off-guard and inadvertently make someone’s situation more difficult.

This is why CMC’s EDI group is so important to me, and why I’m grateful that our leadership team are behind it. We have a long way to go, but we are striving to create a culture where open and empathic conversations are the norm, combined with mature and well understood processes that anticipate situations like these. We really hope this will help foster an environment where everyone can be themselves!

*Name changed – approval was kindly given from the source to publish this article.

By Emma Barron, Business Analyst at CMC Partnership Consultancy Ltd