Wednesday 28 October 2015

Diversity Training

I have been reflecting on Diversity and Diversity Training recently. As usual, this post is my thinking aloud on the subject. In particular, I am no expert on this one, and am interested if others think I am on the wrong track here.

A while back, I was running some change workshops for a large organisation, for a number of teams who were facing a serious and unwanted change.

As we planned them, the responsible senior manager mentioned that we would also have to include some diversity training, as it was that organisation's policy that all their training should include diversity training (I understand that there was some history behind that policy, of the organisation falling foul of discrimination legislation).

I was clear that I am not particularly well-informed on the subject: my idea of diversity training would be that we should be nice to everyone, whether we agree with, or approve of, them or not.

However, we realised that we needed to do something a little more substantial, and so the corporate diversity champion was invited to contribute. He agreed to do a half hour slot on each of the workshops.

He was a charming gay man, who entertained the group by starting his session singing an operatic aria: he had a fine tenor voice. He then told us a little of his history as a gay man in a world that was often prejudiced against gay men. He told us how hurtful it was when social workers had questioned him about his relationship, when he was seeking to adopt children. He ended with a plea that we should all campaign for equal marriage (this was before the legislation).

Afterwards, the senior manager with whom I was working said that she had wanted to ask some questions, but had known that she could not. Her concern was that they could have been interpreted by him or by others present as homophobic, and that would have been the end of her career.

I was reminded of all this when reading some of the debates surrounding Caitlyn Jenner, formerly Bruce Jenner, who has just been awarded Woman of the Year status by some magazine; and Germaine Greer's view that a man who decides he is a woman does not, thereby, become a woman. 

The odium heaped on Greer by some was extraordinary. She did not, so far as I could see, wish any ill on Jenner, or wish to deny him anything; she merely disagreed intellectually with him. And that gave me pause for thought. 

And what I thought was this:

Surely diversity cannot mean that we must all agree with everyone about everything; it must mean that we cultivate the ability to work positively and compassionately with those with whom we disagree.

I liked the gay man who was the corporate diversity champion, and it is no fault of his if questioning any of his assertions is too risky for a senior manager. I sympathise with Caitlyn Jenner: I cannot imagine what he has gone through, but can well believe it to have been very difficult.  

However, what both these people, and much of the diversity industry, seem to me to want is not just sympathy and understanding, but approval and unquestioning agreement with their worldview.

When one has been oppressed and hurt, I can see how easy it is to conflate disagreement and dislike: but in fact they are not the same thing.

And when it comes to diversity training: it seems to me that it is all too often promoting homogeneity of view rather than debating and, dare I say it respecting, diversity of view.

The pinch point comes when you get students at a University who are so wound up by this, that they wish to make the University a 'safe space' - a space into which views that they do not like cannot intrude. That seems to me to be the antithesis of a University, and I was glad to see the Vice Chancellor at Cardiff tread that difficult line of robustly defending free speech, whilst also positively affirming the University's commitment to equality and diversity.


  1. I am responsible for LGBT diversity in a large organisation. I am sorry to say that I would not feel comfortable to be coached (and I respect the value of coaching) by someone who was at odds with our organisation's fundamental values. We support equal marriage. We would respect the private rights of employees who perhaps for religious reasons disagree with this stance. But our suppliers (from coaches to cleaners) are expected to conpunwoth our policy.

    I have every sympathy with the diversity champion you mention.

    It is very easy to say that there should be a right to disagree. But you would not say that if the man had been black, not gay.

    Genuinely interested in what informs your reticence to gay rights.

  2. Harry,

    Thanks for your comment; though I confess it left me somewhat puzzled. I cannot see why you deduce that I am at odds with the fundamental values of my client organisations. They all have diversity policies, and I am happy to comply with all of them.

    My point, rather, was that discussion is better than closing down discussion. And if a black man had been talking about racial equality, and people had questions about some of his assertions, I would certainly hope (though in some organisational cultures doubt) that such questions could be discussed. That way, if the questioner is wrong, or has misunderstood anything, that can be corrected. But likewise if the speaker is making unwarranted claims or using questionable data, that, too, can be addressed. My role as a trainer and as a coach is often precisely to make people more aware of the assumptions they are making, to promote discussion, reflection and debate, and thus stimulate learning.

    As it happens, I have coached many gay people; some indeed have sought me out for further coaching later in their careers. I have had robust debates with some about various aspects of gay politics, just as I have had robust debates with many other people about issues close to their hearts. For example, the other day, when I challenged the PVC of a University about the value of University education, she understood that I am not anti-education, or anti-universities: I was helping her to think and articulate her thoughts more clearly.

    When we actually disagree, as may happen (though by-and-large my coaching is non-directive) that can be even more interesting for both parties, and we often find we both learn a lot.

  3. To my mild irritation a long post i did in response seems to have got itself lost. I will repeat it tomorrow. Thank you inthte meantime for responding