Diversity, equity and inclusion - A first-hand experience

single black chess pawn surrounded by eight white chess pawns

I’m honoured to have been a part of shaping the IFoA’s strategy and response to diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) – themes that have been an integral part of my story. While DEI matters have grown in visibility in the world of work, I have also become more attuned to these aspects in my personal and professional life.

To me, diversity is about having an appreciation for human differences and being able to value those differences. Diversity includes not only ways of being but also ways of thinking, which is where the true value lies in decision-making.

While many organisations may, on the surface, seem to have their diversity boxes checked off – with a healthy mix of genders, physical abilities, ethnicities, religions and other factors – that is just the start of the journey. An organisation can be diverse without being inclusive.

All dimensions of diversity have value; however, cognitive diversity has been identified as a key driver for enhanced performance. Cognitive diversity relates to differences in perspective or information-processing styles. It is not necessarily predicted by factors such as gender, ethnicity or age. So having a demographically diverse team does not always mean that it is cognitively diverse.

Inclusion is when everyone can feel valued regardless of their background. That might be, for example, in someone’s ideas being heard despite not being from the same background as everyone else around the table.

Consider this analogy: A transplant patient needs to prepare mentally and physically for their new organ. If their body fails to get along with the organ, it is rejected. The same is true for organisations that resolve diversity at a superficial level. An organisation can succeed in recruiting diverse candidates but fail to address its culture and environment, and therefore exclude new talent. When organisations are unprepared for difference, people could leave or be ‘rejected’.

The third piece of the puzzle is equity. To quote Culture Amp: “When we treat everyone equally, we treat everyone the same, but when we treat everyone equitably, we focus on individualistic needs.” In short, equity levels the playing field and recognises the different circumstances people possess.

I have often been a minority in my teams – younger, black, female and foreign. Diversity – tick. However, equity and inclusion have not always been consistent ingredients in my environments.

In the UK, for most of my career, talking about race or ethnicity was largely avoided. It took me a long time to figure out what it meant to ‘be me’ at work. I was never quite certain I could be myself and thrive.

I arrived into my first London workplace, a 19-year old without a clue about how to dress or speak or behave in an almost all white, mostly male, environment. I had been juggling my short-lived university studies with a job as a croupier at a West End casino and I didn’t have deep pockets to buy fancy clothing or know how to groom myself in ways that might be considered suitable. So I watched, learned and assimilated. I spent a lot of time trying to fit in and not stand out. For example, it took me a long time to comfortably wear my hair naturally.

I didn’t have the vocabulary to express my sense of being an outsider when I began my career. I felt ‘less than’ in many ways, including not having an undergraduate degree. I’m certain my colleagues had no idea how I felt, they were not mind-readers after all. I would like to believe many workplaces are more tuned into these matters in today’s world. That there is increasingly space for these important conversations to take place and all voices to be heard.

When I was elected President of the IFoA, I was relieved that the press release spoke of me as the first non-UK-based President rather than the first non-white person in 160 years. It was uncomfortable to spotlight my other differences in age, gender and ethnicity. It turns out that what was uneasy for me was empowering and inspiring to many people who contacted me. Their reactions prompted me to reflect on my reluctance and emboldened me to own my differences.

The IFoA is committed to doing its part to deliver a DEI strategy that supports talent attraction, member service and upholding the public interest. This requires intentional engagement with DEI matters. The strategy will evolve and mature with the benefit of feedback from members and other stakeholders.

DEI initiatives may sound like the responsibility of an organisation; however, in order for them to be effective, they require buy-in. Each of us carries a responsibility to create a diverse, equitable and inclusive environment – in our workplaces or elsewhere. What is the commitment you will make towards uncovering and interrupting your blind spots?

DEI initiatives may sound like the responsibility of an organisation however, in order for them to be effective, they require a buy-in.  Each of us carries a responsibility to create a diverse, equitable, and inclusive environment – in our workplaces or otherwise. What is the commitment you will make towards uncovering and interrupting your blind spots?


You can read more about how you can identify and tackle diversity, equity and inclusion issues in your workplace, with support from the IFOA, in our DEI Strategy.