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Posted by Philip on 22 August 2013, 6:18 pm in , , , , , , ,

Diversity through three social change lenses

The notion of diversity is still, in my opinion, hopelessly limited. In the last month I narrowly missed the launch of DiverseNZ (their website diversenz.org is still dead...I mean, not live). Then I watched Helen Clark speak, albeit eloquently, but so basically, about women in leadership at TEDx Auckland 2013.

Clark, like DiverseNZ, spoke about women in leadership like it was a new idea. I wondered what year it was. Actually, what century.

The consistent and continual confusion of categorisation and representation with diversity is something I bang on about all the time. This week I guest lectured at Unitec's "Community Development & Social Change" and "Mental Health & Disability programmes". This time I banged a slightly different beat, thanks to a framework created by friend and fellow social change practitioner, Gael Surgenor.

I used Gael's combination of three different social change lenses to look at diversity:

  1. Growth and decay (about which I've written profusely on this blog).
  2. Loose and tight.
  3. Light and dark (I've touched on this before here). 

Growth and decay

Diversity is often seen as something, the awareness of which, people need to grow. Indeed, Clark's talk was littered with examples of how and why the importance, understanding and volume of women in leadership should increase. She mused over why, after decades of feminism, on average only 20% of leadership roles are held by women. It's a fair question, but I think there are different, more important ones to ask.

My questions are about the culture of leadership — why is it still so masculine and and why does it view women as less able to operate in this hyper-male environment? What needs to decay in this dominant culture to change the gender balance of leadership? There are only so many leadership positions in the world — how do we stop men holding these roles and reappointing with a male bias?

My view is that women like Clark, who have emulated a masculine demeaner and manner, have managed to gain the trust of men in this male-dominated world and have unwittingly supported the status quo. She spoke of the sacrifices she has made to form and perform in this masculine environment, such as the ability to take responsibility for young,  elderly and disabled family members. From that I see two other ideas that need to decay. First, the notion that high-level leadership is so all-encompassing, because it is, after all, borne of a need to control, not to truly lead. Second, the gender-stereotypical belief that women are more likely to be proficient than men in these caring roles.

Loose and tight

A hallmark of the evolving understanding of diversity is to hold tightly to a seemingly greater and greater volume of narrower and narrower defining labels. The language of sexual and functional diversity is particularly prone to defining people with ever-increasingly distinctive identities.

Distinctions between transgender and transsexual, for example, or queer and genderqueer, seem important for people to claim meaningful identities, but they also have a tendency to be divisive and can be used to create conflict within communities (a common trait that creates a fight for rights, resources and recognition between marginalised groups).

Similarly, a never-ending growth of medical jargon is bestowed upon people with unique function — ADHD, autistic spectrum disorders, aspergers syndrome. These serve only to increase the profits of pharmaceutical companies and tighten the discretion of bureaucracies. For people they only create greater levels of otherness, stigma and fear of difference.

Held too loosely are the realities that we are all beings, human beings, citizens and community members. For diversity to be embraced with more integrity, these uniting roles we share need to be held far more tightly and given more importance. The value of distinctions, while important in certain situations, needs to be far more loosely regarded.

Light and dark

Science has proven without doubt that wherever light is present, a shadow is cast. This physical phenomenon is useful to apply metaphysically to contemplate diversity. In my 2012 TEDxAuckland Talk I clarified that labels are indeed useful. They create awareness, recognition, human rights and understanding — these are the light they cast. The shadow, or darkness, the light creates means they have limitations too. They can create assumption, judgement, entitlement and separation.

Grappling with the tensions of paradox

These paradoxical tensions, as Gael points out exist with all of the lenses, need to be understood and accounted for when grappling with diversity. A new, more valuing term created by a social service organisation to describe the people it works with, say 'member' or 'stakeholder', is an example of decaying a label, loosening the separation between roles and creating light.

But these labels inevitably become familiar and used in a shorthand and repetitive manner — 'The members are...' or 'We need to do this for the stakeholders...'. This can be seen as a growth in stereotyping, a tightening of distinctions in roles and the shadow of the lightening effect of changing language.

Engaging with diversity with integrity and authenticity needs continual observation and questioning of ourselves, our assumptions, our practice and our effect on others. It is not a quest for the answer, going back to Helen Clark's talk, to how to get more women in leadership.

Rather I would suggest, it is a continual cycle of considering the paradoxes. What needs to decay here to allow something new to grow? What are we holding too loosely or too tightly, or not loosely or tightly enough? And where is the shadow of our light - is it inside us creating burnout and resentment, is it casting darkness over those we work with and disempowering them, or is it somewhere else, lurking where we can't see it?

The space in between

Goethe proved, through the use of prisms, that the spectrum of colour exists where light and dark meet — the space in between, as social change practitioners call it. This can be applied to growth and decay (the balance of which nature itself shows us we need) and tight and loose (held too tightly, an object breaks, too loosely, it drops — the skill then is to find the right pressure to hold it securely but not too much so).

The space in between, I think, is where diversity truly lies. It exists neither within us nor within others, but between us. It is manifest in how we communicate, interact, respect, trust, support and love one another. It manifests in our relationships, our beliefs, our assumptions and our discovery of each other — not once and forever, but in a continual, ever-changing and ever-wonderous discovery of who we are.



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