It's time to ditch the 'diversity backpack'

I’ve never run a marathon, but it looks really hard. The only thing harder would be running a marathon with a giant heavy backpack on. Imagine running a marathon with an extra 50kgs on board! It would slow down your every step, you’d burn energy faster and tire quicker; basically everything would be a load more difficult for you than it is for all the other runners around you.

Are you exhausted just thinking about it? Yeah, me too.

Yet we are unknowingly asking people to achieve this feat every single day.

I attended Mental Health Training years ago and the trainer asked the group to ponder this, and I’ll ask you to do the same now:

You’ve been asked to deliver a speech in front of 1000 people on a topic you’ll be provided when you get on stage.

  1. How do you feel?

  2. What is running through your mind as you wait in the wings?

  3. What physical symptoms are you experiencing?

Most people will respond with some version of:

  1. terrified

  2. nope, I don’t want to do this

  3. shakes, nausea, racing heart, sweaty hands and the need to have a good old nervous wee.

She closed the exercise by explaining that those same feelings, thoughts and symptoms are what people with anxiety feel about engaging in daily activities.

Yep, many people feel the same way about grocery shopping, catching a bus or attending work as others feel about delivering a speech to a thousand strong audience.

For those readers without an anxiety disorder, just sit with that for a bit before reading on...

Some people with anxiety disorders feel the same apprehension about everyday activities as other people feel about delivering a speech to a thousand strong audience.

And sadly, that’s not the end of it!

Many members of the LGBTIQA+ community report that they don’t feel safe being completely out at work. Some reports indicate this figure to be around 65-70%, which is a phenomenally poor statistic. This means that around 325,000 of the half a million non-heterosexual adults in Australia feel they need to hide a significant part of who they are when they’re at work.

To have even an inkling of what that must be like as a heteronormative person, try to go a week, or even a day, not referencing your partner’s name, or using gendered labels like husband/wife or girlfriend/boyfriend, or talking about your home life or social life in a way that alludes to your sexual orientation. Sounds tough right? You'd have to be constantly vigilant about what you say in every single conversation, no personal photos on your desk and no plus ones at work events.

It's estimated that 65-70% of the 500,000 non-heterosexual adults in Australia don't feel safe being completely out at work.

But we still aren’t done.

Surveys I’ve been involved in over the years have identified that a significant percentage of people living with disability, illness and impairment (particularly those with invisible conditions), people with religious and cultural beliefs, members of the LGBTIQA+ community and First Nations people feel they can’t be open about who they are at work for fear of what the repercussions may be.

I can’t say I was shocked; but seeing that data made me feel ill.

There are millions of Australians going about their working lives every day expending a fairly decent portion of their mental and emotional energy to keep a key part of what makes them the incredible human being they are hidden from view. They're lugging a diversity backpack.

And think for a moment about the weight of that backpack for those who belong to more than one of the groups mentioned previously. How much more weight is a LGBTIQA+ First Australian or a culturally diverse person living with disability carrying?

I’m not here to provide specific solutions for how we ensure these employees feel safe enough to bring their whole selves to work. It’s the members of those communities, and they alone, who have the right to stipulate their needs and expectations to organisations with the reasonable expectation of being respected and heard.

My point is to explain why the concept of inclusion is so critical and why I feel so strongly about it.

Genuine inclusion is about creating workplaces where people feel able to bring their whole selves to work and be able to meaningfully contribute and thrive. It’s about valuing and enabling the incredible and unique talents of people who have historically sat on the outer.

Genuine inclusion is about valuing and enabling the incredible and unique talents of people who have historically sat on the outer.

Just imagine the energy, the creativity, the innovation and the productivity that could be unleashed if we created workplaces where those millions of Australians felt able to simply be themselves. I imagine it would be like when The Wizard of Oz switches from black and white to technicolour!

Think back to the marathon. How much faster could you run without that backpack? How much further? How much more likely would you be to succeed in your efforts? How much more energy would you have? How reassuring would it be knowing you aren’t weighed down in ways other runners aren’t?

Organisations, and those of us who are part of the majority groups, need to build metaphorical cloakrooms. We need to help the weighed-down runners ditch those bloody backpacks.

Note: I know 'cloakroom' isn’t the perfect analogy. I definitely don’t want anyone liberated of a backpack to ever come back and claim it!

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