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Lisa Bent | Inside Out | Give yourself permission to speak

Our columnist, transformational counsellor and blogger, Lisa Bent, writes about personal development, mental health, social issues and a whole lot more…


Last month I attended a diversity event which was being held as part of London Tech Week.  It was brilliant. The organisation who hosted the event are doing fantastic work to increase diversity that goes beyond what can sometimes feel like a tick box exercise to hit quotas.

They are going deeper by acknowledging that unconscious bias exists and asking their staff to look at their prejudices and belief systems. I literally jumped for joy inside.

On the panel were three engaging women who are leaders in their field and in the audience I was one of eight people of colour out of around 30 people.

Amongst the current discussion about diversity, I have found that ‘minority group’ are still under-represented at these events and therefore in the conversations, which is a key component for change. As a result, it feels as if we are being spoken about, but I question if anyone really understands how we feel and why the need for change is so important.

The last question the host asked the panel before taking questions from the audience was: What has people’s understanding of diversity been?

The middle panelist responded:  “One person asked me ‘Why do we need to change for them?

My gasp was audible and I only realised how loud it was by the number of people who turned their heads to look at me. I felt upset and annoyed in the same breath. The panel session ended and the floor opened for questions. My hand went straight up. The mic came to me and I said:

 I don’t have a question but I think it is really important I say something in relation to that comment. As a woman of colour, still a ‘minority’ in this room, I want to express how I feel. Diversity can be reduced to statistics, but this is people’s livelihood, potential and wellbeing.

“Why do we need to change for them?” That comment punched me in my stomach and I feel really upset. Them? We are people and I don’t understand why we are so much of a threat.

The way I feel about diversity is the same way I feel about Fairtrade, both shouldn’t exist because it should be what we do. Fairtrade – Organisations are giving themselves a pat on the back for giving something back to the farmers, who produce the produce, that they then mark-up many times over, to sell to us and receive a profit. All organisations should treat farmers fairly, but they don’t, which is why Fairtrade exists. This should be the norm just like organisations reflecting society.

I have heard numerous times today that there is a lack of skills amongst Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME), my question to you is where are you looking? – because it isn’t true.

Today it has also been mentioned that a lot of candidates drop out (of the interview process) after the first stage. My question is how are the interviewers making candidates feel? Perhaps they don’t feel welcome and this is enough information to decide it isn’t the environment they want to work in.

People are tired of the hoop jumping, casual and overt discrimination and prejudice and code-switching. Does anyone know what code-switching is? {Silence} Code-switching is knowing that we have to think about how to show up, to fit in. An example is hair. I know that my hair slicked back will put me in a better situation to be accepted, than if my hair out in kinky twists.

Right now I am talking with passion, but to some of your ears I will sound angry. This is passion but this is another consideration we have to make when we talk, as we are quick to be labelled aggressive and angry. So you see, before we have even done any work there is a world of considerations and editing we have to do.

It’s London Tech Week, so let’s also discuss diversity within this. No one needs to wait for a seat at the table anymore. Once you can code, the possibilities are endless. People can create their own businesses and collaborate and they are doing this. No one is waiting and they shouldn’t. Brexit is coming and no-one knows what that will look like, so everyone’s entrepreneurial flair needs to come out now and organisations have to do things differently for their survival.

There are so many benefits of having diverse people in your organisations, especially if you sell something. Cultural knowledge is the authentic feel that is invaluable. The new Marmite advert, for example, is not authentic. Have you seen it? (I don’t wait for a response) Black daughter shouts “I hate you” to her Mum, runs upstairs and slams the door! No, no, no, this is not our story. Diversity is so much than making us visible. The message has to feel authentic and not like a quota hit.

Things can change overnight if everyone decided to look at their unconscious bias. You have to do the work. It isn’t ours to do. Our work is reminding ourselves that we are good enough and we deserve to thrive, after continuously being told who we are and who we are not and …”

At this point, I was interrupted by the chair. “I am sorry, we have to end there as other people have questions and we have to wrap up soon. I don’t actually know what your question was in the end.” She then read out two questions on Post It notes that had been given to her.

Seat at the table

Her last comment was dismissive. I stated I didn’t have a question at the beginning and yes, whilst I spoke for longer than I even planned, there was value in it and it was important. I guess important to me as someone who is a ‘minority’, in a discussion about ‘minority’, but in a majority space. Dynamics.

I felt heard and then not heard with that one last comment.

The Q&A ended and it was network time. I refused to immediately find someone to speak to, instead I opted to sit in my seat sipping prosecco Why? Because I wanted to see what everyone else would do. These conversations are not easy and I allowed myself to be vulnerable for others to have a greater understanding. The uncomfortable can feel different for different people and that day, I chose to sit in it and not make it easier or more comfortable for myself or anyone else.

And so I sat…until my drink finished. I headed to the bar and two men, one Caucasian and the other Asian, caught my eye-line. The Asian man expressed how he loved my Fairtrade and Marmite examples and the Caucasian man expressed how he was annoyed that the host cut me off as he could have listened to me all day.

I spoke to a few people that night and it ended with the remaining four black women in the room sitting together drinking prosecco and talking about our experiences. Everyone said they loved what I said, but wouldn’t have felt comfortable saying anything. I didn’t ask why because I get it.

However, my question is what impact does the continuous self-edit and silence have on us? A greater presence in organisations cannot effectively happen without our voices.

No seat at the table? No problem. Create your own spaces. However, if you are invited to the table, then please give yourself permission to speak.

Good luck on the journey back to your best self.



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