Fighting the Small Fights

Alasdair James Scott, Chemistry’s Head of Inclusion & Wellbeing, blogs here about ‘fighting the small fights’. He is passionate about recognising bias (whether it’s your own or someone else’s) and calling it out as and when it happens – not looking away and letting it slide, as we so often do. Discover the consequences of ‘letting it slide’ as Alasdair explores the issue and read on for his tips on fighting the small fights…

Last summer, I sat down to lunch with my ex. We cordially caught up on family, friends, holidays and work – but soon enough, our chat exhausted the typical niceties and we moved on to current affairs. Both being socially and politically engaged people, this was natural territory for us (if a little divisive – we don’t always agree!) and I took it as an opportunity to voice a bugbear of mine, raising the unexpected step backwards in the fight for gender equality I’d recently witnessed: The Great British Bake Off.

It was around the time of icing-gate. You probably remember the story: promo pictures had been released of the contestants stirring bowls of icing – the women with pink, the men with blue. Cue national eye-roll. This seemingly harmless play by an innocent marketer once again reinforced traditional gender roles and stereotypes that a noble few have spent years unpicking – i.e. women must wear pink (and be meek and emotional), whilst men should love blue (and be hard and stoic). Frustrated, my lunch-date said he didn’t see why it was such a big deal – that I should be worried about bigger things – but nothing about this seemed small to me: not their laziness of thought, their reinforcement of gender stereotypes, nor the ease with which they placed whole groups into pink and blue boxes.

Was I about to change a generations-old view of gender? Probably not, but what irked me was the feeling that I should stop caring or talking about an issue purely because it seemed insignificant and trivial to someone else. If those around us don’t appreciate the causes we see as important, should we pick our battles and not shout out if we see tiny wrongs? Many of us are berated for jumping on our soapboxes too hastily; told to calm down because it’s not worth ‘getting so worked up about’; and since we mustn’t alienate those we need to influence the most, do we run the risk of undermining our positive intent for change by shouting too loud? Personally, I don’t think we should keep quiet or avoid ‘fighting the small fights’.

‘They’re too small to really invest time in…’

Another friend of mine, a successful hedge-fund manager, knowing about my work in inclusion, recently came to me filled with questions about the issue of transgender people at work. It turns out the traditionally homogenous financial sector is not immune to the debate! He asked: ‘Is this really something I need to know about? How many people really identify this way?’ Recent estimates put the figure at 500,000 in the UK, but it’s likely to be higher. Perplexed, he mused that the impact of a group that size on his organisation would be so little that it might not be worth investing time in the issue.

I’m sure you can appreciate what he was doing here. He’s a senior guy, his time is precious, he needs to see the return he’ll get from investing his energy and resources into certain causes. From where he stood, such a small group’s impact on an organisation is negligible compared to the gender equality, revenue, and lining up fruitful investment for his clients. Whilst understandable, the quick lurch towards disregarding such a prominent issue in business today was surprising to me, not because he had bigger things to worry about, but because of the potential snowball that can build when issues like this, and gender stereotypes, are left ignored.

Snowballing your way to micro-injustices

The problem with ignoring the seemingly innocuous is that they can quickly become real problems that cause internal frictions and reputational harm to an organisation. This snowball-effect can lead to ‘micro-injustices’ in the workplace – apparently harmless things (think: pink icing) happen, remain unchallenged, and are allowed to fester.

These injustices might be large-scale – as seen in many prominent advertising campaigns – but, more commonly, they’re found closer to home: in the assumptions we harbour of others and the behaviours we then display. They’re small acts that occur quickly and can cause humiliation or a feeling of insignificance: confusing one member of a minority race with another individual of the same group, for example; consulting a female team member as an afterthought to making a strategic decision; forgetting to introduce a member of a minority group to a key client or stakeholder. A micro-injustice could be something as small as a comment, a shift in someone’s tone, or inappropriate humour. As a Scotsman in London, I myself have been asked: ‘How can you be Scottish? I can understand you really well!’ Meanwhile, my lesbian friend was told by a colleague: ‘You really don’t come across as a lesbian; you just seem so normal.’

I firmly believe that most people never intend to offend but, nevertheless, micro-injustices hint at innate (and often negative) assumptions about minority groups. Their effect is felt across groups and up and down an organisation. For those on the receiving end of such slights, the lack of onus on rectifying the situation can be disheartening exhausting. If no-one calls out micro-injustices, it implies that they’re acceptable; when they happen repeatedly, they become an uncomfortable truth; and at their worst, they can cause fantastic, talented employees to question whether it’s right for them to stay in an organisation. Companies who don’t act on micro-injustices are at risk of losing brilliant talent. You’ve got to talk about the icing in the mixing bowl.

Tips for fighting the small fights…

The sad truth is that inaction or being selective about the cause we get behind permeates many societal groups and organisations. My ex and my hedge-fund manager friend are well-meaning, educated, progressive, good people, and even they show reluctance to engage with or take on the small fights. We can’t expect everyone to be stirred by identical issues or fight for the same causes, but seeing the world through a wider lens and appreciating that these battles are worth fighting is essential to moving the goalposts for everyone.

I’m going to leave you with my tips on unpicking cultural norms, diluting feelings of negativity, and avoiding those pesky snowballs:

Challenge your own assumptions: Consider what you deem ‘normal’ and compare it to the world-view of others. We’re all sensitive to different things, and our experiences of culture and working practices can dictate what we think is worth investing time in, which can lead to lack of awareness in issues that are huge to whole segments of society – or to that high-potential colleague who helped you and your team reach their bonus last year. Don’t assume that a fight isn’t worth fighting because it doesn’t instantly stir you; be curious and, if not you, allow and encourage others to take on the struggle.

Be brave and shout out: Ultimately, don’t sit on your hands. Speak up if you see a lack of action or the dismissal of a potentially potent issue. It can be easy to let these things go, particularly if you have a challenging audience or you’re someone who finds small conflicts difficult. The key here is to calmly state the needs of those affected by small slights and the consequences of glossing over seemingly harmless events. This is about education rather than being the ‘fun police’; bringing people on side in order to push the fight forward.

See the impact of inaction: If the impact of doing nothing was laid in front of you, the best of us would strive to do more in the future. Start by appreciating how often the small fights occur; how prevalent micro-injustices really are; how gruelling it must be for people who constantly feel them. Taking the time to think about that may lead you to look for better ways to understand the reasons behind the issue and the perspectives of those affected by its fallout.

Sep, 05, 2017

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