We are visibly seeing the distress caused by systemic racism in cities across the world. The boil of inequality has truly burst. Brutality by the police on peaceful protesters, indifference from leaders, and systematic racists simply either acting in ignorance or downright hate, are symptoms of the worst apathy and resistance to change. What citizens are looking for is for leaders to stand up for equality and justice.
Racist behaviour is not new. Brutality towards certain people has been happening for centuries. Recent developments are bringing that behaviour into the consciousness of us all. What I sense and am hoping for is that we have reached a tipping point. A tipping point wherein such crimes against humanity are becoming untenable. Many ordinary people and leaders are standing up for equality and justice. Now there is an opportunity for many more leaders across the globe, in whatever leadership position they hold, to do the same.
Factors involved to stand up for equality
While not exhaustive and most progressive leaders will have many interventions they practice, here are the main three areas leaders must tackle to stand up for equality.
Representation is a way to make sure cultures and organisations are equal. So political parties, corporate boards and teams within businesses should be representative of the community they serve. Despite some great efforts, aiming for representation is not creating the tipping point needed. Right at the top, the lack of representation is endemic. Only “around 3 per cent of the most powerful, prominent 1,000 people in Britain are from ethnic minorities, according to the research”.
The problem of equality is not one dimensional. Research in 2015 by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation found “people from ethnic minority groups are often at a disadvantage in the labour market. Minority groups are more likely to be unemployed than white British people. They are over-represented in poorly paid and unstable jobs. While they are less able to secure opportunities for job progression or employment which matches their skills and abilities.’ Recent research shows not much has changed. In the USA the opportunities for minorities, including access to mortgages and investment were distinctly disadvantaged by the “redlined neighbourhoods“. These red lines ensured lenders discriminated against people who resided in those black geographical areas.
Hate crime and hate speech
In the UK, instances of hate crime are increasing year on year. There are many reasons for the occurrence of hate crimes. I think one problem in the rise of hate crime is the interpretation of the law on freedom of speech and hate speech. My experience is from reading across my networks on social media.
Social Media is one of the worst perpetrators of dividing opinion around the use of hate speech. It’s traditionally difficult to monitor social media. In my own conversations with others, I have similarly found confusion about the difference between freedom of speech and hate speech. I believe this has resulted in many people who are openly prejudiced being emboldened to talk about people with different characteristics in a derogatory and inciteful way. With some main political leaders appearing to openly condone or participate in such speech themselves.
Although open to interpretation, the laws on free and hate speech appears to be clear. According to the Public Order Act 1986 (POA), it is an offence for a person to use “threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour that causes, or is likely to cause, another person harassment, alarm or distress”. This law has been revised over the years to include language that is deemed to incite “racial and religious hatred”, as well as “hatred on the grounds of sexual orientation” and language that “encourages terrorism”.
So what can leaders do?
Society and organisations no matter how progressive they think they are if not visibly standing up for equality and justice, then their apathy is part of the problem. Leaders must stand up for equality and justice. They must demonstrate a zero-tolerance of anything less than a very high standard. There are millions of ways leaders whether political or organisational can show commitment to caring about everyone equally. Here are 5 ways leaders can get started.
1. Be determined to create inclusion and equality
Discrimination has lasted for decades, despite the heroic efforts of many leaders like Martin Luther King, or Nelson Mandela. Great change and positive change often takes a long time. There become moments in history where a new paradigm arises and a great opportunity for change. With the unspeakable and wholly distressing sight of the murder of George Floyd, this is one of these moments.
If you are a leader, then now is the time to stand up for equality and be counted. You need to adopt a “no compromise” attitude and intention of creating an equal environment, society or organisation. In order to strengthen this intent, there are several things you can do immediately. Focusing on creating an equal culture cannot help but achieve it if there is real determination behind your focus.
- Carry out a root and branch review of how equal and included your employees or people feel.
- Develop a multi-dimensional plan to fill any gaps in the employee or people experience. These might include, making sure you have the right representation. It might mean pulling apart your organisational system for any unequal policies, practice or behaviours. It could mean rethinking how you operate at the deepest cultural levels.
- Practice what you preach, you must be the shining light of an equality mindset and demonstrate this at all times. Any incursions to being squeaky clean here greatly tie your hands. You will be held up as an example for others. Poor behaviours from you embolden people in your team or society to emulate these poor behaviours.
- Be really clear about why an equal organisation or society is good for you. It’s not just the right thing for people involved, it’s good for the organisation as a whole. Do your research until you understand why it’s good for all.
- Use transparent and credible data. It’s not really good enough to simply have information on representation. You need to have data on every aspect of equality, including people’s lived experience. Deepen understanding and monitor results to inform the narrative. These must stand up to scrutiny.
- Celebrate efforts and wins around equality. Celebrate often about how you and your team or organisation stand up for equality. Keep equality at the fore of attention and scrutiny.
2. Create an open and transparent conversation with all your people about equality
Creating a culture of equality isn’t within the gift of the top team alone. An ongoing conversation must be had with your people if you are being seen to stand up for equality. There are a number of aspects which will help to create an environment where everyone feels safe to speak up.
- Make discussions on equality natural and part of the culture
- Acknowledge people’s lived experience and get feedback, if its a perception problem, then deal with it. If it’s a real problem, then deal with it. The main trap many people fall into when they hear someone is unhappy is to try to second guess why they feel like they do. Then they dismiss their perception. This is part of the problem.
- Communicate until you can stand in another’s shoes. This can take many conversations to understand deep-rooted problems. Any time spent doing this is so worthwhile.
- Be really clear on your intention. Tell people where you want to go and why. Keep the conversation going by being open about the gaps and exactly what more needs to be done.
- Empower others to help in your cause. Engagement and involvement are the biggest drivers to help with any cause.
3. Clear out unconscious or systematic biases
We all have blind spots. It’s human nature to make our minds up without thinking. You cannot claim you are not discriminating if levels of representation and the lived experience of your people are telling you something else. Unearth and look at your blind spots. Be open to the possibility you are missing something.
I like to believe I am a “woke” individual, but when I completed an exercise about the diversity of my network, it was clear that my inner circle was not diverse at all. Look at your own network and expand and diversify where you can to learn more and up-end some of those unconscious biases.
Examine your beliefs. Do you really believe everyone is equally valuable? Do you truly understand why diversity is so crucial to the success of your society or your business? Are you able to break down ego-based fears about particular people based on their characteristics? It will be work in progress, as it is for us all. However, you need to be clear about your own biases and prejudices and get rid of them.
4. Create a zero-tolerance culture for acts of inequality
We will only stamp out inequality if we operate a system of zero tolerance of lack of equality in our behaviours and cultures. In order to create a system of zero-tolerance which is fair to everyone isn’t always easy. Here are some basic principles.
- Setting clear boundaries is vital. The consequences of stepping over the boundaries must be clear to all.
- Get rid of a stereotypical response. For example, I know the majority of police officers are good, admirable people who have a mission to protect society. People to whom we owe our safety, lawfulness and therefore deep gratitude. However, there are, like in any walks of life, people who are the opposite. People who base their behaviours on ego-based thinking with a lack of any self-awareness of themselves or others. There should be no broad tarring of swathes of people, but each individual should be dealt with on their own actions.
- Acts of inequality should attract an appropriate penalty Where a penalty is deemed not appropriate, it should be clear and accepted by all involved as to why that is so.
- Where someone steps over the line, there must be a full inquiry, and the consequences must be clear to all.
- Operating a zero culture does not consist of vilifying anyone. Anyone who initiates or carries out an act of inequality must live with the consequences. Education and changing minds is the ideal remedy where it can be done.
So there are my thoughts about how leaders must stand up for equality. What are yours?