Diversity and Inclusion: what does it mean to belong?

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8 August 2021 (Updated 11 December 2023)
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Diversity and Inclusion: what does it mean to belong?

It seems like everyone today has diversity and inclusion as high priority on their agendas. But what are we still not getting right? We sat down with Sonya Barlow, who has coached teams across Europe on Diversity and Inclusion, partnering with the likes of Google, Santander, and Vodafone. Here she talks about why we are lagging behind, and what a person needs to feel like they belong.

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When companies hire you to help with their Diversity and Inclusion (D&I), what are their focus areas?

Companies tend to start with the fundamentals; what does D&I even mean? We introduce words like diversity, inclusion, and allyship. It’s hard to fix a problem when you can’t define it.

85% of those in the workshops that I've delivered don't know what intersectionality means, including the heads of D&I. So the people that are leading programs don't know about a fundamental part of the discussion.

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Discrimination doesn’t exist in a bubble – different kinds of prejudice can be amplified in different ways when put together
Another challenge is really convincing everyone in the conversation that they can speak up. There's a will to progress, but people feel like they don't have a voice because they are afraid to get things wrong. It's about giving those people enough space to be able to say things that may be wrong but to know that’s ok, as they can be corrected. White males, especially, feel this way. 

Is it true that many D&I officers have had the role foisted upon them because they happen to be the only ethnic person in the company?

Yes, that’s extremely common. And I think it isn't fair. I'll give you a couple of reasons why. One is: just because you are the minority person (be that a woman, brown person, or gay person) doesn't mean you should bear the responsibility to make your workplace more equitable.

Two is you shouldn’t have any role thrust upon you when you don't have the background — or the right level of passion. You have to be passionate about creating the change to take this on. Minority groups are now being asked to do this on top of a desk job, which doesn't make sense, as it’s a full-time role. 

Would you consider going to a full-time role as a D&I rep in a corporation?

No, I don’t think a 5-day traditional working structure is for me. I really encourage not only the four-day-week but other ways of working like flexible working and role sharing. I think these are going to be really important going forward. Just yesterday (I do coaching for career and confidence) I coached a woman who’s been out of work raising her kids. And now she's finding it really difficult to come back into the world of work. It’s hard to transition her experience to find a new job because ageism is rife in the Media/Marketing/Tech World. 

To her credit, she approached the hiring manager of a company to ask “Can I role share? I'd be happy to come in at a lower-paid salary so that I can learn on the job.” I think that's a beautiful approach, a way to provide opportunities for those who are really wanting to upskill, by matching them with someone who has the capability but maybe doesn't want to work five days a week.

Can you explain the difference between belonging and inclusion? 

I made this graphic for an article I wrote on the subject. There's an analogy that people often associate with diversity inclusion, around coming to the party. Diversity is being invited to the party without having to chase the invite, inclusion is having the music to dance to not being judged for your moves, and equity is being able to dance without the barriers to access. Belonging is that space in the middle. 

diversityinclusionDiversity + Inclusion + Equity = Belonging
It's where we are able to show up as our best selves and feel like we can truly thrive. And most importantly that we have the tools, the framework, the access, and the support to do so. Belonging is feeling and believing that we are not only meant to be there but we are encouraged to be there. 

The stats are rolling around diverse teams increased profits by 17% and productivity by 23%. Teams that are happy reduce hiring costs for up to 30,000 because companies don't have to worry about them leaving. So D&I is not just attracting diverse talent. The bigger issue is how do you retain them?

It sounds like D&I policies should include extra training for managers in some of the issues that employees from diverse backgrounds might face. 

That's exactly it. More often than not, it's middle or senior management who are making decisions about hiring and firing, about progression and promotion. So they are the ones that need to be trained. But a lot of senior stakeholders simply don't feel that there is a problem.

They think, oh, well, we have one female/brown/gay person. We're diverse. Let's tick that box. They don't think it's important enough to allocate budget to it or show up to meetings. Because they are focusing on client work and so forth. But how will you get a client from a diverse background on board if you don't understand them? You are missing out on a real richness.

What are the areas that you wish more companies would focus on?

So there's a big movement around value fit versus culture fit. Even, five years ago, tech or startup culture was portrayed as “hey, join us and get free beer, and nights out with your colleagues, and Uber credits to take you home when you’re drunk.” Honestly, if you think about it, why was that a perk? 

Another popular one, unlimited holidays, also doesn’t make sense. Research has shown that with unlimited holidays colleagues actually take fewer holidays and then they should do it because they feel bad. So they are more overworked.

In job interviews, you often have five rounds of interviews. That’s half a day unpaid. Why? Because companies want to see if candidates get along with their people, if they’ll be a good fit for their culture. But if you’re a fit for the culture, that means you look and feel like everyone else. So is a candidate really bringing in that diversity of thought, mindset, and progression that a company needs to thrive?

As companies transition into remote work and (hopefully) hire more diversely, won’t it be difficult to form the bonds you had in an office? How do you connect with and learn from colleagues from diverse backgrounds if you're all remote?

I think that's such an important question right now. At the end of the day, we have now entered a new digital age. You are able to make connections online, we meet some of our best friends on social media, many of our communities are 100% remote. 

I used to have the same question. Between 2015 and 2018 I didn't have an online presence. And, I was very isolated and disconnected. Even within my own workplace, of more than 800 people. 

Belonging is feeling and believing that we are not only meant to be there, but we are encouraged to be there. 

That's one of the reasons that I created Like Minded Females (LMF). We're a community to enable and empower minoritized groups in business and entrepreneurship. We run mentorship schemes, and a global community online and offline. The point being, originally we started as a brunch club. It was run in person. No one showed up to the first three brunches. But they did start showing up for the information online. 

Some of our biases include thinking that we can only create meaningful connections in person. But you can spark not only friendships but share information and education. You can revolutionize the way people think.  

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I delivered a TED talk on this, it's called “Please, come online” Somewhere along the road, we started thinking “you need to be in-person to get things done.” 

COVID has taught us that isn’t true. You can deliver workshops virtually, and have conversations like this. It's not to say some real-life connections aren’t stronger. But we can start creating connections online without worrying about barriers. Then we can take them offline at a later date.

When it comes to working and working habits, as long as you are in a company that onboards you well, that has directed you to the Slack channel, WhatsApp groups, etc, and has created community hubs and forums within working hours, you can form strong bonds with your colleagues. I think that's important to stress that that’s within working hours.

If you look at LinkedIn, digital jobs in the tech sector have increased their roles by 36%, especially in the UK. I'm really happy that job roles are increasing, but I wonder what companies are doing to approach candidates in a diverse and inclusive way? 

COVID has also taught us that there is technological poverty. Not everyone has the access to the same skills or digital and resources as others. That is big because not every employee has WiFi in their house, you don't even want to assume they have a working laptop.

COVID-19 changed the way we connect. Here are 7 online events that stood out in 2020. 

Why do you think tech is so bad with D&I compared to other industries?

Tech is new finance. Historically finance was the most powerful industry in the world, and everybody wanted to work in it. There was the old boy's network, long working hours, and a lot of competition. But you were repaid in money and fame. This is what technology has become. 

Tech companies are not as inclusive because again, they're hiring for the top-tier privileged talent that comes from the top 10 universities. They are hiring based on grades, privilege, and identity rather than on skill sets and potential. And they are working with the same recruitment companies without acknowledging the likes of, for example, our network LMF, which is free and has over 20,000 members.

Where should companies that want to hire diversely— but don't know where to start— look?

A network like ours is a great place to start. As mentioned, we’re a huge pool of diverse talent, we have a data set and a large mailing list. We are global. We know what diverse talent wants, and especially diverse female talent. But we extend to race, ethnicity, and sexuality. If we're not able to help you, we've got great friends who will be able to help within the network.

You know, I always find “where do I start?” a really funny question coming from tech companies- we all have the internet in the palm of our hands. Why not search Google, or ask your network or do a call out? There are so many ways that you can approach this. When you’re not doing these things it makes me think, do you really want to create or be a part of the change? There's that famous Einstein quote “insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.” That’s how it seems from the outside looking in. 

What are your personal experiences with this topic?

I can tell you that diverse talent does not feel comfortable going through traditional recruitment companies. They don't want to go down a route where it is not set up for their success. A recruiter once rang me and gave me a job description and then later said “I don’t think you'll get it, you're just not what they're looking for.” They were not trying to encourage me to progress. But I'm very competitive, so I got the job.

I worked in another company where they went out and bought me a jar and asked me to put a pound in it every time I mispronounced something. And this was in a company with 15 - 20 middle-class white people, I was the first employee of color. In my first month, I exceeded the target and got a bonus. In my second month, I didn't do that well, and by my third month, I made my excuses and left. At no point did my hiring manager come and find me and say "Hey, why is your productivity going down? Why aren’t you happy?"


That's why I'm so passionate about D&I because I myself have been a part of the community that suffered, I've really been able to learn and understand what it feels like to come from a minoritized group. I've seen women declined job roles because hiring managers can't pronounce their names.

I have seen women of color have to put on a ‘work voice’ and perform because they don't want to reveal their true identity. Because they are scared if they use their real voice they will be fired. Imagine being at work and never truly being able to relax or be yourself.

D&I is so fundamental because it's like creating the foundations of the house before you lay on the brickwork. If your foundations aren't secure, your house will crumble. And you think about it, if your house is continuously crumbling, it would take time and effort, and money for you to go back and for you to start getting renovations done. Just do the solid work to begin with. It will save you a lot of effort and heartache in the long run.

Diversity and Inclusion is not a one size fits all approach. But it can involve training, consultancy alongside it, a strategic audit, and later a consultant for extra support. You need to look at it as if it was its own business unit. That's how important it is. 

If companies decide to do a strategic audit, what are some good benchmarks?

It does depend company to company. But an easy one is to look at satisfaction. Can you create anonymous surveys to ask them how they're feeling? Can you approach them to understand if the culture is suiting them and what they would like going forward? Can you think about the perks and the benefits that companies are now delivering? Most people don’t care so much about free alcohol. 

Things they will care about are things like: can you provide an extra day's leave for a colleague for a religious holiday. That'd be inclusive. A day off for Christmas, obviously, is really important. But what about those who are celebrating Muslim, Jewish, or Hindu holidays? How can we make them feel like they belong? Maybe rather than give out matching hoodies we should say ”we're going to offer you one day extra per year for your marriage, one day for moving, one day for a religious holiday.”

A great example is when holidays are being used to go back home, not to have a traditional vacation. You can attract talent from overseas by saying “everyone has a week off during Christmas that's paid, and we're able to offer you two weeks a year to work from anywhere that you want, as long as you can get the internet.” Another thing could be saying “core hours are from ten to three and anything you organize outside of that is up to you.” That would be great for working parents. COVID has proven that especially for working moms, having to be online all the time is disastrous. 

Final question. What aspects of the field excite you?

That's such a difficult question. One thing that excites me is allowing people to understand their privilege and power, and then how they can convert that into allyship. It’s amazing seeing people opening doors to help others. We haven't even started touching upon it properly. Not a lot of people even acknowledge the privileges that they have. 

Some heartwarming moments with the teams I coach is when those who were a little adamant that this wasn’t a problem eventually relearn and upskill. When they do pledges at the end, you're really able to see the change that we've created during that one conversation

Sonya Barlow is an award-winning diversity business coach, author, and motivational speaker focused on neurodiversity, tech, travels, and trends. She has delivered 210+ workshops, and has partnered with global companies such as Google, Santander, and Vodafone. In 2020, she was named as one of the most influential women in tech. Sonya is the founder of Social Inclusion Network Like Minded Females (LMF) and a BBC Presenter of The Everyday Hustle, highlighting stories of Asian entrepreneurs.. Connect on LinkedIn or send an email

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