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Celebrating Diversity

In this Campfire Chat, which took place on Zero Discrimination Day, we came together to discuss what celebrating diversity means to us, explore how this links to mental health, and shared our thoughts on why – and how – we should all be working towards greater inclusivity, both in and out of the workplace.

Zero Discrimination Day was launched on World Aids Day in December 2013 by UNAIDS, a UN programme set up in response to the HIV and AIDS epidemic. Since then, it has grown into an annual opportunity to celebrate diversity of all kinds, while championing everyone’s right to live a full life, with dignity.

It was fantastic to see so many people engaging in such an important topic which impacts our entire workforce.

Key discussion points in the Campfire Chat included:

What does diversity mean to you?

Diversity can mean so many different things to different people and can be hard to put into words. Given their various backgrounds, each of our panellists had slightly different takes on this, but ultimately it came down to one common thread: diversity is the inclusion of difference.

Within some organisations, diversity has become a box ticking exercise. However, simply having a diverse scope of people as part of your workforce isn’t really diversity. Diversity is about accepting people for who they are and everything that they can bring to the table. It’s an existence free of prejudice. It’s not just seeing different people in the workplace and being able to recall the right stats. It’s actively celebrating that diversity, giving everyone a sense of belonging, and actively listening to those in minority groups. It’s about recognising the fact that we’re all different, but that we can work and thrive together.

What does equity mean to you?

We cannot talk about equity without first talking about equality.

Equality and equity, whilst often used together, are inherently different. An image used to illustrate this was first designed by artist Angus Maguire, which shows two images side by side of three people of varying heights standing on boxes to watch a baseball match over a fence.

The first image depicts equality and shows three people standing on equal sized boxes. Meaning that whilst all individuals have been given the same tools to help them watch the match, the smallest person still can’t see over the fence.

The second image depicts equity. This time, each individual has been provided with a different sized box to suit their specific needs. The smallest individual has been given the tallest box, and the tallest individual the smallest box, meaning they can now all see over the fence and have the same vantage point. So, whilst the tool provided is slightly different, it is tailored to the individual need of each particular person to allow them to achieve the same outcome. (See this illustration here on the Interaction Institute for Social Change website) 

Everyone needs support and should be met where they’re at. It’s an iterative process in working towards a fairer world.

Diversity as a movement, not a moment

This is the idea that we should all be continually learning and be open to growth. As society evolves, we need to be open to continuous adaptation. This means embracing the fact that we don’t know everything and never will, and becoming comfortable with asking questions, doing the work, and knowing that we won’t always get it right.

If a challenging situation presents itself, it can be easy to be supportive in that moment, but it’s the continued learning and commitment to improvement which is vital. This is why we need to keep these conversations going, so that they become common place.

Diversity and mental health

Diversity and mental health are inextricably linked. Speaking specifically about the veterinary professions, we know that burnout, anxiety and depression are more prevalent compared to most other professions and there are further studies showing how lack of inclusion is also linked to burnout and other mental health issues. We can’t talk about one without addressing the other.

By creating a working culture where people feel empowered to be themselves, we can reduce instances of burnout. Recently, the Mind Matters Sarah Brown Research Grant funded research into the impact of racism on mental health in the UK veterinary sector. Whilst the research is ongoing, so far, the study has shown that racism negatively affected BAME people’s wellbeing both within and beyond their workplace. You can view a summary of the research in the Mind Matters Initiative Research Symposium Report and a recorded presentation of their findings so far, here.

People who are neurodivergent or have a chronic illness, often mask their symptoms in order to fit in. The surplus energy needed to keep up this constant façade, has also been shown to negatively impact mental wellbeing. When speaking more specifically about neurodiversity, this is shown to be more common amongst women. Many people don’t even realise they’re doing it. Many women are neurodivergent but become so good at masking that they never get diagnosed. They struggle in silence never knowing why. Find out more about masking here.

Unconscious bias

We all have unconscious bias. Unconscious bias is an unconscious favouritism towards or prejudice against people of a particular ethnicity, gender, or social group that influences our actions or perceptions.

Unconscious bias is difficult to address as we don’t know what we don’t know. We have all said or thought things in the past which, upon reflection, we probably shouldn’t have said or thought, or didn’t really mean. But rather than immediately recoiling and regretting our actions and then forgetting about it, it’s important to look into what made us say it in the first place and the thought process behind it. We all have blind spots, and we need to keep them in check.

The Implicit Association Test (IAT) was developed by Harvard University to identify and measure an individual’s implicit biases. The tests indicate where we have differing levels of positive and negative connotations with different groups of people and can help us understand how our unconscious bias may be impacting our interactions and treatment of others. Once we are aware of our biases, we can find ways to mitigate their impact on our behaviour and decisions.

Whilst it can be useful to learn where your own sociological blind spots are and which areas you need to work on, this isn’t enough. It’s about learning what we do with that information once you have it and being able to implement strategies to improve our own unconscious bias and that of those around us.

(If you wish to take the test, please ensure you read the ethical considerations before doing so. You will not receive support or feedback on the test results, so you may wish to consider this before proceeding).

Learning from a diverse workforce

When we talk about differences amongst individuals, the focus is often on the challenges people face and the specific label which marks them as different. Not only is this degrading, but completely misses the point about how we as humans relate to one another.

If we turn the tables, there are so many positives to be found in difference. For example, those living with a disability are hugely resourceful and fantastic problem solvers because of the challenges they have had to learn to navigate in order to lead their lives. This ability to problem solve translates across many situations, not just in relation to their disability. They have a more flexible mindset and can bring a greater level of understanding and empathy to clients. This translates across all aspects of diversity. Embracing diversity makes the entire workforce stronger.

For more on how diversity, equity and inclusion matter, you can access a 2020 report by McKinsey & Company, via The Leadership Library. This report demonstrates link between high levels of gender and race diversity and enhanced organisational performance. It also suggests that other kinds of diversity are also likely to bring some level of competitive advantage for companies that can attract and retain diverse talent.

Creating a culture of belonging

Acceptance is hugely important. All anyone wants is to be accepted, to be happy in who they are, be able to go to work, and enjoy life. We all have a duty to keep learning and make people feel accepted for who they are. We are all leaders in our own way but there are people who have more power within organisations to ensure this becomes common place. There are so many people out there who are doing fantastic things and changing things for the better, but we all have to be prepared to listen.

As the leader of an organisation, you have to listen to those around you. Having an EDI policy in place is one thing but putting it into action is quite another. Leaders need to commit to listening, reflecting and speaking out and find the power within themselves to be vulnerable. To be open when they don’t know something and give others the power to educate them in the areas they are less clear on. This applies to us all, but ultimately leaders are the ones who can create real systemic change. It can be lonely being in a position of leadership, but compassionate leadership will create room for growth and meaningful change.

Further resources:

If you’re currently struggling with your mental health, Vetlife is there for you 24/7 and can be reached on: 0303 040 2551.

The Samaritans also provide 24/7 support and can be reached on 116 123.

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