In conversation with Jasmine Gartner


Discussing diversity and inclusivity in business using an anthropological lens

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Image by Image credit: Jasmine Gartner

By Matilda Seddon

Why should we be interested in understanding business strategy through an anthropological lens?

If you think about it, anthropology is the study of the values, behaviours and ideas that any group of people share. When you think about business, especially after the year and a half we’ve just had, there’s a real focus on fostering a sense of belonging. Many businesses have been trying to help their employees transition back into working in the office, meaning that focus on values has become really important, and the anthropological lens can help you figure out what those values are. There’s a difference between spoken culture and unspoken culture. We’ve all been to businesses that have their values up on the wall but nobody knows what they mean or, even worse, that they aren’t true. And so it’s really about the tools you can use to focus in and figure out what the real values of your business are.

What work have you been doing recently?

I do a lot of work with unconscious bias in recruitment and consultation. I recently worked with an organisation where they asked me to design training on exploring the idea of using gender pronouns. How to use them is pretty clear, you just have to put the work in. But exploring the idea from that anthropological and cross-cultural perspective gives people a bigger frame of reference.

How would you say you structure your approach?

Because I work as a consultant, it’s really about looking at what people need. So I’ll get a brief from a key contact in an organisation, and then put it together with an anthropological perspective. For example, there’s a lot of training around allyship out there, and a lot of it is very good but it’s also very similar. From my perspective, I can take a slightly different approach. There’s a sociologist, Erving Goffman, who did a lot of work on an idea called ‘covering’ which is related to shame and saving face. So we might look at the anthropological concept of covering and then think about diversity, inclusion, and allyship, and so you look at it from that angle rather than just in terms of the bystander effect. I think it results in a more nuanced and deeper approach.

Could you say a bit more about the concept of covering?

Say that you were from an underrepresented group and you might not talk about it when you go into work. For example, you might not talk about your partner, or when you mention them, you do so without mentioning their gender. Other people in the organisation would go on thinking that you’re heterosexual when you’re not. When people ask you what you did over the weekend, you might say ‘Oh, my partner and I did –‘ and you wouldn’t feel like you could say ‘My husband or wife and I –‘ or ‘That’s not something I get involved with because I’m asexual’ or whatever the case might be. You try to fit into the norm and fit into other people’s expectations.

In your unconscious bias workshop, you stipulate that a diverse environment is not necessarily an inclusive one. How would you distinguish between diversity and inclusivity?

In this field, they say that as soon as two people are in a room, you have diversity. You could have a diverse group of people, but that’s actually the easier part. To create a culture where people actually feel like they belong and where they’re not urged to fit a norm is the real challenge. When you’re inclusive, you’re actually asking people to bring their different viewpoints and experiences into the mix, rather than to just come in and just do the job. In a lot of organisations you have culture-fit, which is a horrible thing where you’re just asking people to come in and plug themselves into your culture. In fact, what you want is culture-add, where whatever culture you have, you want people to come in and add something to it. I think culture-fit might be diversity, roughly speaking, but culture-add is definitely inclusion.

How, or in what ways, do you think the corporate world would benefit from increased inclusivity and awareness about diversity in the workplace?

That’s a big question. It’s a tough question. I also think it’s a question we shouldn’t be asking anymore. Nobody ever asks how we might benefit from having a homogenous corporate world where everybody is the same, because where’s the value in that? It’s just accepted that those kinds of people will add value. There has been research that shows that the only way diversity and inclusion actually improve your culture is if you have already developed a culture that manages conflict well, and one where there’s psychological safety. If you don't have these elements, then diversity and inclusion will do nothing for you. People won’t stay and they will be scared to add anything from their own experience. It's more that diversity becomes important once you’ve done all of the other hard work of making your culture a good place to be in the first place, and then it just becomes a natural thing that you’ll get people from different backgrounds that will want to come and be there.

I think that's a fantastic take on it. Diversity for diversity’s sake just doesn't work if there’s not already an inclusive culture.

Also, if you look at power structures in our society, you can see that people in underrepresented groups are really visible. And the closer you are to power, the more invisible you are. Ultimately, I think what that does is to say ‘Everybody says that if you have more people from underrepresented groups in higher positions of power, then it’s going to be financially rewarding’. Then what happens is that if you turn around after a year or two, and if it hasn't been financially rewarding, you can then say ‘See, I knew that this wasn’t actually the case’. And so it just keeps the spotlight on the people who are always forced to be visible in that situation, and I think we need to move the spotlight to be on the people who are in power.

And what would you say the main challenges are for employers and managers in organisations that want to see that change and increase awareness about unconscious bias and inclusivity?

If the people who are in power don't buy in, nothing is going to change. If people don't see it reflective in their day to day jobs, then it’s not going to change. As long as it’s a nice-to-have rather than an essential, then it’s not going to change because people are busy. It's got to be embedded into your strategy for running the business over a year or even five years or ten years. So I think the biggest challenge is just getting people to see how important it is.

Why would you say it’s so important?

It’s important because this is about freedom. By opening up more powerful roles for traditionally underrepresented groups at every level of the business, you’re creating freedom for people. There’s a misconception that if you open up spaces to underrepresented groups, it’s just displacing other people who are then going to be out of a job. Let’s say we’re talking about men. What’s really important to understand is that not every single man wants to go out and be the stereotypical alpha male and he doesn't want to be a CEO. Not every single man wants to do that. For those men who actually want to stay home with their kids, or who want to be a receptionist, or who want to go home and write poetry, it’s freedom for them as well. And so actually, by empowering women, you’re also empowering a large group of men who are doing work they don't want to do.

What do you think about considering organisations’ momentum towards increasing inclusivity in a post-Covid world?

I think the danger is that everybody will fall back into old ways of being, because it’s easy and it’s familiar. That’s my fear, that that will happen. I can’t really imagine post-Covid right now because I don't think there really is a post-Covid for the immediate future; it’s really changed the fabric of our world. I think it’s going to be a challenge because I think people fall back into old ways of being very easily. Saying that, I do think the past year has opened peoples’ minds up. For example, you can’t go back to saying it’s impossible to work from home. Maybe the silver-lining is that people will question more and push back more.

What do you think about the argument that inclusivity is just a trend where companies are just hopping on the bandwagon, rather than it being a lasting effect?

I really hope it’s not just a trend. I think if it is only a trend, we’re going to lose out and be poorer for it, which would be a real shame. I’m an optimist and look at the world through rose-coloured lenses. There are so many amazing people to meet and discuss ideas with. Why would you want to blinker yourself? From a business point of view, it’s very short-sighted to think that way, because our world is moving in that direction. If you’ve read David Olusoga’s book, Black and British, it’s great in that it highlights the fact that there have always been black people in this country. Here in the UK, it's always been diverse. It’s just about making space for that. I guess we have to decide what kind of society we want to be. I think that if you can’t imagine it, it won’t happen. So that’s one good reason to have some idealism, because it allows you to think big and to imagine a future that seems impossible at times.