Iesha Small

writer, speaker, charity strategist

Exploring society, education, leadership and how to live a meaningful life.

Head of Diversity and Inclusion? No, thanks

Head of Diversity and Inclusion is an important role. It’s a role for many people who are serious about societal change.  It’s also not a role for me.  Here I share my current reservations around this job title especially for the most senior Black member of staff in an organisation.

Tick Box Title?

For 6-10 years of my working life I have often been the only Black or not obviously white person of any seniority in decision making/influencing rooms within or outside of my organisation. At times some people have tried to dismiss or undermine me by implying to me or others that my appointment was tokenistic or to tick boxes – not knowing that actually I had to be at least excellent with my track record to get my role and often shortlisted from a massive field. Then that I had to continue to be extremely good because of my hyper visibility.

It’s a running joke with some of my professional friends that often the only senior person in certain organisations who isn’t white and/or male is the Director of Inclusion and Diversity or Access or equivalent and I don’t want that association especially since my roles are often outward facing.

Important considerations before asking visible minorities to lead on Diversity and Inclusion

We need to be very clear what we mean by access, diversity and inclusion, so it doesn’t become too nebulous. I have clear views on this “using the umbrella term of diversity can allow majority groups to address the section of diversity they find most palatable rather than the ones that challenge them or may need most attention [to address structural inequality].”

I cannot and do not want to be the only person associated with access, diversity and inclusion in a predominantly white organisation in the eyes of wider staff. Lenny Henry articulates this very well in his speech Fighting for Diversity is Scary, “Study after study  has shown that women and people of colour pay a heavy price for promoting diversity.”

Study after study has shown that women and people of colour pay a heavy price for promoting diversity Click To Tweet

When change happens people get scared and when scared, people – even nice people who consider themselves liberal and fair minded- can do damaging things. If you are reading this as a fellow status quo challenger, you will understand this deeply. I experienced this in many ways, large and small, in a previous SLT positon where a large part of my job was to challenge middle leaders and improve standards. I did my job but it took a massive toll. I felt supported verbally + privately but not practically or publically and it took a massive toll on me and was no small part of me deciding that organisation (and potentially that sector) was no longer for me.

When change happens people get scared. People who are scared can do damaging things. Click To Tweet

Any organisation asking a visible minority to lead on contentious work such as access, diversity and inclusion needs to discuss and take practical steps to limit the effect of professional and personal backlash against the individual associated with change. This will almost certainly show up in in subtle or more obvious ways if anything that is more than tokenistic is being proposed. This article by television executive Marcus Ryder on Why Diversity needs white able-bodied heterosexual middle class men has good points around how fear can be removed.

Making access, diversity and inclusion successful

Access, diversity, inclusion and related is a notoriously tricky remit across various sectors for a variety of reasons not least because we live in an unequal society where particular groups are structurally disadvantaged across a number of areas.  For roles with remits such as this to be successful they need to have resources that matter (in terms of enabling action and change) and are seen to matter by others. Obviously people are one resource as are, money and decision making power.

This blog Why the BBC needs to radically rethink their Head of Diversity job articulates that very well. It compares the roles of Head of Diversity to Director of Nations and regions and explains the structural considerations that have made one post more successful than the other in creating greater diversity.

Token life

Diversity and Inclusion is high on the agenda right now across many industries and organisations. This is right and proper. I believe in a fairer, more equal society and will continue to work towards this personally and professionally, whatever my job title.

It does not bring me any particular pleasure to continually be the only Black person or person from a visible minority above a particular level of seniority within an organisation or in external decision making spaces. In my recent working life I have definitely felt valued for my skills and perspective. At quieter times I also feel that my existence is not enough for long term change. Generally, I do not see clear pipelines and structures to increase access for underrepresented people in a variety of senior leadership roles beyond my time in an organisation. That doesn’t feel like success.

My existence alone is not enough for long term change Click To Tweet

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Clarification

I published this blog because I noticed many organisations starting to be vocal around high profile appointments for roles leading on Diversity and Inclusion in the wake of Black Lives Matters protests in 2020. The issues are not new and don’t reflect why I have left any recent roles. I’ve never had or been offered a Head of Diversity and Inclusion role but I do have them shared with me via my professional network. I originally wrote a draft version of this over a year ago but it seemed especially timely now. For those of you wondering, in recent years, I’ve been lucky enough to work in working cultures where I can and have been candid about views like those I express above with my boss (part of the executive leadership team).

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If you are interested in the human side of leadership then my book The Unexpected Leader is for you.

Head of Diversity and Inclusion? No, thanks