Minorities need professional networks in order to frame their insecurities as political, not personal. And in order to take action.
The British liberal newspaper The Guardian had two weekends back two prominent articles (1 and 2) on gays in politics promoting Michael Bloch’s new book Closet Queens. After the May election, the United Kingdom has more gay MPs than any other country. The articles depicted the journey the country has gone through on gay rights. In hundred years gays in politics have gone from being ostracized to being asked not to make a spectacle out of themselves to being the public secret to being the token to – being nearly equal?
It is a common phrase amongst advocacy organisations that their job is to make themselves irrelevant. I am sorry to be the party pooper. Belonging to a minority will always be an issue. Diversity is not a rash you treat with the right ointment, it is the state of affairs. Just to give a simple example. Bonding with business acquaintances often starts from talking about kids, home, holidays and family. This is where spouse and family backgrounds come up. It will always be a statement – an Issue, if you wish – that you do not apply to the norm. It will always be more of a political statement when you do things differently. Treating diversity like an illness leads us on false trails. The issue we should and can all work on is how much does this reality prevent people from living up to their fullest potential.
Belonging to a minority often brings with it the probability of self-discrimination, i.e. excluding yourself. This has a number of reasons. Especially with sexual minorities, one of the reasons is that your teenager years were often very different. As a massive American study with teens a couple years back revealed, gay teens have completely different fears than straight teens. When straight teens are worried about getting to the right school, finding a husband or wife, being slightly overweight or getting a well-paid job, the biggest fears of gay teens are whether you need to move to another city, whether you will be bullied or whether your family will disown or abandon you. This means that you have more often than not gone through insecurities on a different scale than the average adult. You have had to go through scenarios of not being accepted and more often than not you have also been very clearly demonstrated that you do not belong.
Exposing yourself to observation and criticism – and the risk of being shut out – stops many minority members from raising their voice, volunteering to take responsibility or joining activities. This means that people choose to live below their hopes and potential. The other common reaction is overcompensation as in the need to do three times more for the sake of avoiding the risk of your minority status being used as a tool to strike you down.
It is fundamental to make a difference between diagnostics and treatments. Even taking into consideration the issues mentioned above, the last thing minority members need is pity. But in order to fix things, problems need to have victims and faces – they need to be humanised. This requires courage from minority members. In this sense Californian gay campaigner Harvey Milk was right:
“Every gay person must come out. As difficult as it is, you must tell your immediate family. You must tell your relatives. You must tell your friends if indeed they are your friends. You must tell the people you work with. You must tell the people in the stores you shop in. Once they realize that we are indeed their children, that we are indeed everywhere, every myth, every lie, every innuendo will be destroyed once and all. And once you do, you will feel so much better”
But if the sense of urgency accomplished is not followed by action, the realisation has no use. Often the hardships have actually made minority members stronger but that does not take away the fact that they – or Us – still need help from the majority in changing the society for the fairer. One does not go without the other. In order for this to happen, minority questions – gay marriage, affirmative action for ethnic minorities, trans law, asylum seeker quotas, hate speech legislation – need to be reframed as universal litmus tests for our democratic way of living.
I have now worked as a director of a 400-person organisation for 2,5 years. I genuinely feel that being gay has made me a better leader. It makes me more sensitive. It allows me to spot moments where the language used unconsciously discriminates. And it has made me very wary of all-male structures. But only when meeting other gay people in leading positions, I have realised that many of my insecurities as a leader are not entirely personal. That my personal is actually very much structural and political.
Many American companies and government agencies have realised that this is a real issue – and a genuine risk for getting the best people for the best jobs. Leading corporations understand the link between diversity and innovation. Successful companies like IBM have understood already in the 1950s that having a staff and leadership, which reflects your clientele, makes you more agile and alert. Having a diverse leadership attracts top talents and allows all people to see role models within the organisation. It also allows you to spot risks in your operations before you roll them out.
But what these organisations have also understood is that reaching diversity requires investment. Therefore they actively support employee resource groups within their organisation, i.e. loose affiliations of employees belonging to minorities, which exist for the sake of networking, empowerment and consultation. Organisations from Coca Cola to world-class advertising agencies and European Bank for Reconstruction and Development sponsor diversity events as well as allow staff to use working hours and office facilities for instance for African-American or LGBT employee resource groups.
I often feel that we in Finland are still stuck on the level of talking about preventing discrimination but fall short on creating structures that support diversity. But I see it as a massive opportunity.
I work for the biggest employer in Finland, the City of Helsinki. Helsinki’s workforce is extraordinarily diverse on Finnish standards. My hope is that we would take a leading role in actively pursuing diversity. We have systems in place already for women’s mentoring and career support. But we need to go further. We should take a leap into fostering minority networks. Work has been started on supporting migrant networking. But as Helsinki Pride is just around the corner, Helsinki should also acknowledge the unused potential in its LGBT employees.
I am willing to pitch in. Let me know if you want to help out.