The second part of the conference was split into workshops; I attended the White Allyship workshop by Leyla Okhai, and the RECLAIM workshop asking “How do we get more people from working class backgrounds into the industry?”.
RECLAIM – How do we get more people from working class backgrounds into the industry?
The RECLAIM workshop considered the background of an individual, rather than the current position; a useful distinction as I would class my own background as working-class, but I am now in a middle-class position. RECLAIM also defined social class based on economic, social, and cultural – in simple terms someone with a middle-class background will not have worried about university debt, have an attitude of “not what you know but who you know”, and whether you fit in with the surrounding work culture.
I did not find the workshop particularly enlightening; there are many things I cannot identify with my colleagues based on not only their class, but also where I grew up. We did things differently in my town compared to what my colleagues seemed to have experienced; and it felt to me that (what I perceived to be) middle-class kids at our school were a minority.
One of my colleagues had also attended the workshop, describing his family as moving from working-class to middle-class (my own bias is on show here as I did not consider this of him). He felt that the boundary for working-class kids was family expectations; he had the same opportunities as his friend at school, and they had a similar academic attainment; but he felt he was encouraged more educationally than his friend, and subsequently his friend has not “attained” the same level of work as he had, due to a lack of encouragement. I can see this is one possible barrier, I also found schools were not very encouraging if you weren’t an A grade student (and these were often the “middle-class” kids). The impression I got from school was that most of us would end up in a factory or shop – which unfortunately was not unrealistic.
This workshop was much more thought-provoking and hard-hitting. The workshop started off describing acceptable languages of race; and how different terms are context-dependent, location-dependent etc (e.g People of Color, BAME, etc). It is a minefield! A comment was made about how white culture (in the UK) is undefined compared to black and Asian cultures – this made me think about family again, and whether we do not discuss family history as much as other cultures?
The pyramid below was shown, it is very powerful. I can see where I have fallen into some of these traps; all I can say is that working in engineering, with multicultural teams and in multicultural locations, has made me change my views compared to what I thought in my home-town reading red-top newspapers. I do feel I am still on the Indifference part of the pyramid; this is changing (especially with COVID-19 and the BLM movement). I aim to become anti-racist.
It was mentioned earlier in the talks that companies need to know why they are trying to make their workplaces more inclusive. I struggled with this initially; but reading Mahesh Mali’s 2nd point on Promoting social inclusion in schools in his disability inclusion blogpost; this sentence reminded me what it was all about: “If there is social inclusion embedded in the mind at the very young age, it will lead to the authentic friendships of students with disabilities and their non-disabled peers”.
For me, authenticity at work is the most important thing. If a person is not authentic, then trust cannot be formed. Mistakes can be made if that person’s concerns are ignored; and the person will not contribute fully if they feel they cannot be themselves. This reminded me the reason I wear the rainbow lanyard to show allyship to LGBTQ+ colleagues – it is not about me; it is about making them feel comfortable, and to show they have someone to support them. Being inclusive allows people to be authentic.
I still have a long way to go in regards to this. I am haunted by the memories of a person speaking to me about our manager not taking their concerns seriously when they had been bullied by another colleague (this wasn’t a hidden thing – we had all witnessed the bully). Rather than listening, I had dismissed them, saying that the manager was concerned. I gaslighted this person’s experience, and if the manager was concerned it would have been dealt with. Instead, this person left the company. I do not know why I stood up for the manager.
I still struggle with speaking up. I have noticed I am not speaking up to support others when another person is saying ridiculous things in relation to their characteristic. I have a tendency to “shut-down” when I hear nonsense, when I should really challenge these views. I also do not allow colleagues to vent when another colleague has behaved in a less than respectful manner.
I will try to learn more about others’ history and heritage to gain a greater understanding of their point of view. I feel that having a better understanding leads to more patience and a different way of working rather than fixed patterns. I hope to also learn why I fall into the traps above, and hopefully with greater understanding I will be more brave and speak up.