Changing the Language of Inclusion

The mantra should never be ‘we need more diversity’, it should be ‘more diversity will make us better at what we do’.


I have been told many times that my involvement in Diversity and Inclusion is, at best, odd.  After all, I am a middle aged, white, straight male.  I am also right-handed.  It seems that there are people who see this as excluding me from being involved with inclusion which, on the face of it makes sense if you assume that to understand a problem you need to have experienced it.

And therein lies a lot of the problem we all face when addressing D&I, either in our organisations or in other aspects of our life.  We see D&I as a problem to be addressed.  We see it as a deficit to be rectified.  D&I is something we need to fix.  But where to start.

The language of deficit starts very early.  I coach rugby.  I have coached for many years, coaching men, women, boys, girls, and mixed teams.  The one absolute truth I have noticed is that, until around the age of 10, girls are far better rugby players than boys.  Why is this?  There is no single reason but there are many studies that show girls tend to develop better spatial awareness than boys at an earlier age and that girls are more effective at working together than boys, which are two critical skills demanded by rugby.  And there is no real physical difference as rugby at that age is ‘tag’ rugby, where a ‘tackle’ is made by detaching tags worn on a tag belt.

Why is this significant?  Every year, one of the schools I coach enters a tournament against other schools.  One of the rules, added I am told, to ensure ‘inclusion’, is that every team entered must have a minimum of two girls on the pitch at all times.  Every year my little village school enters two teams and, for a tiny school we do well against the bigger schools.  Two years ago, I entered an all-girls team.  I was abiding by the rules.  When the entry was received, the organiser called me and asked what point I was trying to make.  No point I said.  I just want to win so I picked the best team I have.  The organiser insisted that the teams had to be mixed, although nowhere did the terms of the tournament state this.

The underlying assumption is that girls need inclusion despite being demonstrably better at the sport than boys.  Like so many D&I assumptions, it assumes a deficit will occur and seeks to rectify the deficit by applying a quota.

How is this relevant to our organisations?  I think we need to change our perception of D&I.  Organisations have started to recruit Chief Diversity Officers which, on the face of it, could be seen as forward thinking and innovative.  The problem with this approach is that it can mask a problem.  The organisation can argue they have done something, but one person cannot fundamentally change the culture of an organisation.  Apply this to my rugby analogy.  If the tournament organiser becomes the Chief Diversity Officer, what will they say?  It seems to me they have two choices: either increase the quota for girls or simply state ‘select your best team’.

Increasing quotas rarely works because it invokes a negative thought process.  The approach becomes ‘we need to pick more girls’ and misses the real point which is ‘if we pick more girls, we will have a better team’.  That nuance is crucial.  It is the difference between grudging acceptance and positive enlightening change.  So, the answer is to apply the ‘select your best team’ approach.  The trouble with that is years and years of unconscious bias.  Boys play rugby.  Even the most enlightened coaches will generally pick a predominantly male team.

Does my all-girls team mean I am unusually enlightened?  Let’s take a look at how that decision came about.  My primary objective as a rugby coach is to deliver against the English Rugby Football Union’s values: teamwork, respect, enjoyment, discipline and sportsmanship.  We also play to win.  Not at any cost, but we seek to win with dignity and, if we lose, to do so with grace.  To be selected for any team of mine, a player must demonstrate all these values consistently.  None of these values precludes anybody.  I have coached children with many and various educational needs, children of every colour, children who are deaf, children with behavioural issues and even some left-handed children.

Every child I have coached can embrace the five core values without prejudice.  We also look for speed, vision, spatial awareness, an ability to communicate and an understanding that it takes seven people working together to make a team.  At the outset of every training session, we remember the values.  We test each other out, we look after each other.  We have a core set of beliefs as a team.  Yes, I am talking about 8- and 9-year-olds but it is never too early.  And who picked the all-girl team?  The children themselves.  I asked them to write down the best team they thought we had, and they came up with an all-girl team.  They broke the rules, not me!

Culture comes from within.  Coaching not management is a more effective approach to D&I, but coaching needs to come from within the organisation too. Never outsource coaching.  Ensure that the highest-level objectives of your organisation do not preclude anybody, repeat these objectives, identify all embracing values, and live by them.  Recite them regularly and they will become the culture of the organisation. The mantra should never be ‘we need more diversity’, it should be ‘more diversity will make us better at what we do’.

Just ask the 9-year-old boy, the sports star of the school, who told me ‘Sir, I want the school to win, and the girls are the best. If we pick the best team, we all win because we can cheer them on’.

For the record, the team they picked beat every other team they played.  And, yes, every other school complained.  Next year I might try an all left-handed team.


You can hear more from Simon at the Women in IT Summit on 23 June 2021. You can view the agenda and register your free place here