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I am the wrong shaped peg – What discrimination in the workplace feels like

Joanne Lockwood on discrimination in the workplace

With National Inclusion Week coming up (25th September – 1st October), we caught up with Joanne Lockwood, a Diversity & Inclusion & Belonging Specialist who also promotes Transgender Awareness to organisations, to find out more about what inclusion and discrimination in the workplace are like in 2023.

What does discrimination in the workplace mean to you?

“When you ask me about discrimination, I am always aware of the difference between overt discrimination where individuals are denied something, versus micro discrimination where you might not be able to put your finger precisely on what the problem is. With the former, you are excluded because of your differences whether that is perhaps age, sex, gender, nationality, ability or skin colour.  It can be as a result of implicit or explicit bias.  With the latter, it might be more of an underlying current, hidden or subtle, sometimes involving microaggressions.  Perhaps you should have been the front-runner for an opportunity, but you weren’t chosen. Maybe you are not invited to meetings or conversations, or decisions happen without you.  It is easy to develop a subtle paranoia – ‘Is it me?  Did I say the wrong thing?’

“Ultimately people who discriminate make assumptions, have pre-conceived benevolence and typecast who then fall back on stereotypes. For example, it is often assumed that wheelchair users won’t be able to fulfil a role. We assume it won’t work. Perhaps we think we are doing them a favour by not putting them in an awkward situation. How will someone who is a Muslim cope with our social Fridays?  That person becomes a risk to the norm rather than an easy hire.  In these scenarios there is an affinity bias – the reality is you are thinking: ‘You are not like me and won’t really fit in’ but you tell yourself you are not discriminatory.  It is much more complicated to deal with.

“Meanwhile, for the person being excluded, this can trigger feelings of inadequacy, incompetence, stress, imposter syndrome and even unworthiness in the workplace.”

Have you ever suffered from discrimination in the workplace?

“I have. I was a lot bigger than I am now.  It wasn’t until I lost 10 stone that I realised I had also become more socially acceptable.  More people sit next to me in the waiting room or bus.  More people are open to talking to me.  I definitely suffered at the hands of BMI bias.

“I was also discriminated against when I began to gender transition. I co-owned an IT company for 15 years. As I was struggling with my own feelings of being stuck in the wrong body, I became aware of work colleagues talking negatively about a transgender woman working in a shared office block, often describing her as “It” and other dehumanising language.  It made me very apprehensive about sharing how I was feeling with them, but there were lots of subtle cues that they knew and then out of the blue my co-directors offered to buy me out.  Once I left I applied for roles and didn’t hide that I was trans.  2017 is a long time ago in trans awareness, the world has progressed since.  I asked one recruiter at the time if my being trans would affect my ability to find work and they said: “If I am really honest yes it is a problem.” I realised that they were not only worried about putting me forward for a role but were concerned how it would make them appear to clients.”

How does it feel to be discriminated?

“What has changed is I am a ‘professionally trans’ these days and I am able to use it in my work as someone who is authentic with lived experience. What I have noticed is there is also camaraderie between marginalised people or those who have been discriminated against. You have your own circle around you who share similar lived experiences from different perspectives, if you are lucky. People who don’t understand me stay away which is sad, but also means I have less difficult conversations. I would rather be excluded than tolerated. It is far more honest.

“Similar to the difference between being lonely and alone, there is a variance between being included and feeling like you belong. I have often felt included but uncomfortable.  Pre-pandemic I used to join others at business conferences and events but I felt uncomfortable with the ‘Bro’ culture. I sometimes have sanctuary in female groups but sometimes I don’t belong there either. There is a cognitive and emotional impact on having to try so hard to belong. I am the wrong-shaped peg for many holes, I want to be embraced for who I am, not having to ‘fit in’ with someone else’s expectations. Equally, my wife of 36 years, Marie, has had many friends walk away from her since I transitioned. Either they couldn’t understand or were confused by the dynamic changes.”

What are the biggest barriers that marginalised people face at work today?

“Both on an individual and organisational level, a detrimental culture, inadequate representation, and a scarcity of allies, especially at the highest levels like the C-suite, and the nuances of language and communication can erect barriers rooted in the apprehension of making mistakes or missteps.”

What then does it feel like to really belong when you have been marginalised before?

“There is a feeling of safety, you can relax and not worry about wearing a mask or pretending.  At work you will have allies who will support you, the company itself is also behind you and will advocate.”

This year’s theme of National Inclusion Week is ‘Take Action Make Impact’! What are the best ways for individuals to make an impact?

“Inclusion starts with an I. A lot of the time it comes down to visibility. Being the best version of you, that you can be. Educated people break down myths.  Reach out and support those who need help.  Spread awareness. Call out discrimination and microaggressions. Fundamentally it comes down to individuals to contribute what they feel able. You can’t change the world on your own, but you can change yourself and be a source of positive influence to those around you. You can be the one.”

If your aim is to have a genuinely diverse and inclusive workplace, why is so important to start at the beginning of the recruitment stage?

“To be honest it is important at every stage – to begin with, retention should be the primary focus, if we lose people our recruitment efforts will be in vain.  Look at the employee engagement feedback from colleagues, promotion data and pay gap information. Get the basics right, culture first – don’t put new fish into a dirty tank.”

Many organisations struggle with having a diverse and proportional representation in their workforce, despite having the best intentions. What can they do about it?

“Organisations face a pivotal choice: they can either passively claim the challenge of finding suitable candidates as being difficult, citing a lack of available talent, or they can proactively create their own talent pipelines.

“To achieve this, establish internal educational programs, and take a proactive approach to enhance your recruitment marketing and employer branding. Ask introspective questions about why certain candidates aren’t being attracted to your organisation and seek out potential candidates not only at the outset of their careers but also those in the midpoints or individuals with significant experience to offer later in life. Prioritise qualities such as emotional intelligence, drive, and adaptability, valuing these traits over purely on-paper qualifications and ‘time served’ experience.

Collaborate with your existing networks and employees to scrutinise job roles and personal requirements to mitigate or minimise the impact of biases and negative signals. Set ambitious targets, collect data, and monitor progress towards your goals. Use social media and new channels to source talent and attract potential candidates by letting them know they can envision themselves as an integral part of your organisation.”

What one question about inclusion would you like organisations to consider?

“Is your door to inclusion open, revolving or firmly closed?”

Joanne Lockwood is the Founder and CEO of SEE Change Happen and an Inclusion and Belonging specialist who works with organisations throughout the UK and globally to bring culture change to deliver Positive People Experiences, that in turn allow people to thrive and perform at their best from pre-hire to retire.

Glossary of LGBTQIA+ Terminology (seechangehappen.co.uk)

 

You can also read Joanne’s article on the right and wrong questions to ask a transgender person.