This is my 750th post here on the Learning Blog. I use these milestones for reflection. Over the last 3 years we’ve covered a lot of ground, and i could happily recap some of those themes, but instead i wanted to share some thoughts on a subject that means a great deal to me. I want to write about equality. I wanted to write about why we need to fight: to be really equal, to treat people fairly. To do what’s right.
How do we change?
Through small steps. Through evolving attitudes. Through bravery.
We change when it’s easier to ask why we’re laughing than it is to join in the laughter.
I spoke to a lady this week in the Metropolitan Police. She’s young, strong, determined. And upset. She described the induction process that she went through when she joined: working in a small and heavily male dominated group, with an older instructor. Many of you are outside the UK i know, so it’s worth mentioning that the Metropolitan Police, the force that protects central London, has come under a lot of pressure over the last few years for institutional racism and a failed culture. I thought things had changed, but it turns out not.
The person i spoke to was upset because the attitudes, the stereotypes, the culture presented belonged to the past: one example she used was a training session where the recruits were exploring the perils of judging people on appearances. They were supposed to be reacting and commenting on a sequence of photos shown to them, projected on a wall, to explore how they reacted to stereotypes, but the session turned into a series of men scoring the women on their looks, of cheering and using sexual taunts and expressions as each new photo came up.
Fourteen men, two women in the room. And you wouldn’t find it happening in a Bank. It wouldn’t happen in a school. It shouldn’t happen in the Police. It wouldn’t happen at home.
Because i don’t believe that those fourteen men would go home and jeer at their friends, they wouldn’t be proud of demeaning the women they had reacted to, let alone the discomfort and anger they had provoked in a colleague. Most of them wouldn’t have told their mothers or partners what they’d done, because they’d be ashamed.
So why did they cheer?
Do we rationalise these things by cheering a little more quietly than our neighbours, do we say the words they want to hear, but in our heads and hearts think differently. Are we scoring women because we think it’s right or because we want to belong to a community, because we’re afraid to be the one speaking out. And what if you do speak out?
The person i spoke to felt alienated: alienated for not playing along, for not being part of the team, for not conforming to stereotype.
Equality is not about special treatment, it’s about fairness, it’s about right, and there’s no such thing as nearly equal. There’s only really equal.
Stonewall, the LGBT campaigning charity, is running a campaign right now called “Gay, let’s get over it“.
90% of lesbian, gay and bisexual young people hear phrases such as “that’s so gay” in school. Only 10% of gay young people say that staff intervene every time they hear homophobic language. 84% of gay young people are distressed when they hear the word ‘gay’ used as an insult [Source: Stonewall]
Are we proud of that? Is that equality? Would those same fourteen men shout ‘gay’ at someone as an insult? Why would 90% of teachers not intervene? Are we really equal when it’s easier to laugh than it is to question why we’re laughing?
Cultures form around shared values: we join when the cost of belonging is outweighed by the benefits. But when cultures fail, we see rifts in trust emerge: we see disconnects between coherent sub communities. If we are not fair, we cannot have a coherent culture. When the laughter is at the cost of one person in the room, and when it’s based on difference, be that gender, sexuality, disability or belief, it fractures the culture, in the moment, across the organisation.
This isn’t a reflection on liberal, ‘nice to have’, soft values. Our attitudes to each other, the ways we behave, the principles by which we live our lives are based on underlying power dynamics and mechanisms of control. To demean someone on their gender, their sexuality, their beliefs is to attempt to disenfranchise them. It implies an authority, a control, an exercise of power that is unsubstantiated.
The word ‘police’ derives from ‘polis’, the Ancient Greek city states. It means a man of the city. The police are there for everyone: their authority is permissive, an authority granted by the consensus of society, a society they represent. We are not a police state, we are a state safeguarded by the police.
Equality is about freedom, about self expression, about living and loving as we wish, free from persecution, free from interference, at least as long as our views and actions cause no harm to others. It’s a social contract between state and individuals, organisations and teams, between all of us. If we judge others on gender, sexuality or beliefs, we attempt to exercise control, we impose judgements of values that are not universal. We don’t have to agree with other people, but we do need to respect them. You don’t have to be a liberal to do what is right, but you do have to be tolerant of difference. You don’t need to campaign, but you need to know when not to join in.
Equality is not easy to achieve: in our shared global culture we experience different legal, ethical and cultural frameworks and we have to respect them, but it’s still often clear what’s right and what’s wrong, and those are the things we have to fight for.
The trouble with fairness is that it doesn’t fracture: it’s slowly eroded. It we don’t respect the people it’s easy to respect, how can we hope to be tolerant across the wider gaps. If we don’t challenge the laughter on the small things, how can we hope to tackle the really big ones? If equality doesn’t start at home, how can we hope to expect it at work, or globally?
For an organisation to tolerate homophobia or racism, discrimination on the grounds of gender or belief is intolerable. It’s wrong.
The culture is not broken because of one or two people in a remote location: it’s broken because of the thirteen other people who laugh along because they don’t dare to challenge the laughter. The culture is broken when one person feels like they’re disenfranchised for being the one person who is right.
Regular readers will know the principles on which i started this blog, 749 posts ago: to be positive, to be fair, to never criticise. I’ve tried to write by those rules, to create and share widely. The fight for equality is important to me, not because it affects me, a man living in middle class liberal England, but precisely because it doesn’t affect me directly. I’m privileged by things i never earned.
Which is why i wanted to share these stories, to share my thoughts, and, just for once, to criticise. To criticise those who perpetuate intolerance, inequality and hate. If we don’t treat others as we would wish to be treated, if we fail to be fair, to do what’s right, how can we claim to be civilised? That’s why i’d throw down the gauntlet to the Met, or any other organisation whose culture permits inequality. Because it’s wrong. Because we need to make it right.