Everyone is equal. At least, in the eyes of the law. At least, in the Uk. Well, pretty much equal anyway. Or at least, we have been for the last few years. Unless you’re a woman of course. Or lesbian or gay. Nearly equal anyway, which is almost good enough yes?
Britain is a liberal democracy, and, for all our faults, generally supportive of equality. Sure, there are still glass ceilings for women in many professions, there is still bias around childcare and maternity and, for reasons relating to church and state, you can have a civil partnership if you’re gay, but not a ‘wedding’. There are still causes we need to fight for, and the final fights to win equality may, in some ways, be the hardest, but we have come a long way.
Attitudes to diversity and equality are, though, at heart, deeply personal issues. I have have strongly held views, but they are my views. You are entitled to your own, as is your boss, the postman or your financial advisor. In a liberal society, we relish and welcome this freedom.
The challenge can come when organisations carry out training around diversity and equality. For large corporates, it’s important that they set their flag in the ground, that they make clear the accepted company stance on these issues, but in real terms, this is hard to achieve. Many companies work across continents, raising complex challenges about cultural norms and accepted attitudes.
There are two strands to the question: legislative and cultural. Like it or not, legislative attitudes vary across countries and continents. Something that’s acceptable in one region is illegal in another. This is complex, but at least reasonably easy to deal with; organisations have to work within the local legislative regime (or actively choose to withdraw – Google take heed), so in terms of training, anything relating to the legal framework needs to be localised.
But training the legislation is kind of cheating. It’s avoiding the real attitudinal questions. And this is where things become more complex. You see, in our aforementioned liberal society, i respect different people’s rights to believe different things. As long as those views or related actions fall within the law, they are free to believe what they like. Legislation can provide protection and make it clear what’s illegal, but there is still a broad spectrum of opinion and belief that is legal, but divergent.
For example, people have a legal right and freedom to think that homosexuality is wrong. They don’t have the right to discriminate on the basis of someone’s sexuality, but if their religion or personal views lead them to this conclusion, they are entitled to feel that and to be protected by the full force of the law. Sure, i’m equally entitled to think they’re a homophobic bigot, but their right to believe what they want to believe, so long as that belief does not translate into illegal actions, is enshrined in law, and rightly so. You can legislate to protect the vulnerable, but you can’t legislate to change what people think. That’s a different battle, and that’s one of the risks of trying to train diversity and equality.
You see, at some level, by trying to ‘train’ people how to think and act, we are likely to easily stray into stereotyping and reinforcing views of ‘difference’. We run the real risk of telling people what to think, whilst in fact, what we should be doing is engaging with them on a personal level and seeing if, as a result of that engagement, they choose to change what they think.
The brave course of action is to let people speak and think for themselves. We have to ensure that we do, at least, present a variety of opinions, that we humanise issues, focusing on personal impacts more than legislative breaches, and that we present views in an open and honest way. Whilst it’s important to identify and show a clear framework that we expect people to work and behave within, it’s equally important to differentiate between that and telling people what to think. Doing that will only reinforce negative views.
The most effective work we have done in this field has been where we have let people tell their own stories, passionately, good and bad, and encouraged individuals to reflect on and think about them. We don’t tell them what to think, we just let them engage as individuals, one person to another.
Tolerance and acceptance of difference are only developed by exposure to different views and an emerging understanding of the fact that we are all, at heart, the equal. Simply presenting legislation or telling people how to behave is, at best, a cosmetic exercise.
The best way for us to nurture and support diversity and equality is through compassion and understanding, by welcoming difference in all things as part of the richness and depth of our society. How we act is driven by how we feel, and we all need to make these personal journeys, which will be easier is supported by tolerance.