When I got British citizenship in 2010, it felt like winning the lottery. Going through the immigration process was a long, nerve-wracking, and expensive journey. But through hard work and a healthy dose of luck, I got to the finish line when so many people with similar skills didn’t make it. My degree, work experience, and age (yes, age) meant that I scored enough points to qualify for the Highly Skilled Migrant Programme during the brief time of its existence (2008–2015). Had I been a year older at the time of applying or in a different profession, the stars wouldn’t have aligned for me.
Once my family became British, I threw away six big bags of shredded pay stubs, bank statements, and tax returns that I had collected for immigration purposes. I also left my job and changed my name. By and large, British employers just weren’t able to cope with my Ukrainian name (Mar’yana Kolodiy). It was misspelled more often than not, usually with multiple errors. So as soon as my immigration process was over, I decided to adopt a new name—Marianne Kay—for professional purposes. It was a pragmatic decision. I was hoping that the new name would expand my career prospects, and it did. I can now introduce myself in one sentence, anywhere, no questions asked. There is no need for awkward moments, geography lessons, or lengthy detours into the history of Chernobyl. Today, 10 years after I changed my name, I am also confident that it better reflects my identity as a British immigrant. It makes me happier and more at ease. If anything, I regret that I wasn’t able to change my name earlier in my career. Research backs up my concerns regarding foreign-sounding names. In 2017, BBC One’s Inside Out asked a question: Is it easier to get a job if you’re Adam or Mohamed? Predictably, in response to 100 identical job applications, Adam was offered 12 interviews, while Mohamed was offered only four. In the same vein, a study conducted by the British Academy in 2019 concludes that, on average, 24% of job applicants with British-sounding names receive a positive response from prospective employers, against only 15% of minority ethnic applicants (while submitting identical CVs). It appears that a significant percentage of hiring managers don’t push the recruitment process much further when they get stuck on the fact that they can’t pronounce the applicant’s name.
Name bias is just one of the many possible factors that leads to inequality at work. Consider these recent figures on diversity from the U.S. and the U.K.:
- Female employees take up less than 25% of technical roles at the U.S.’s largest tech companies (Google, Apple, Facebook, and Microsoft). The lack of women is even more obvious at the senior level and in leadership roles (Statista 2020).
Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender staffers in the U.K. earn, on average, 16% less than straight workers, and about 20% of LGBT+ staffers in the U.K. choose not to disclose their sexuality at work for fear of discrimination (YouGov 2019).
Only 15% of the people working in tech in the U.K. are from black, Asian, and minority ethnic groups (TechNation 2018).
Disabled employees in the U.K. earn, on average, 12.2% less than non-disabled employees (Office for National Statistics 2018).
Stress is a factor in the work of 66% of tech professionals in the U.K. People in tech are five times more depressed than the national average (BIMA 2019).
More than 40% of older tech workers in the U.S. are worried about losing their jobs due to their age (Indeed 2017).
Despite the challenges associated with overcoming stereotypes and biases, the business case for greater diversity at the workplace is overwhelming. Diversity gives organizations access to a wider range of talent, as well as the ability to understand the needs of all of their customers—rather than certain customer groups as determined by race, gender, or some other restrictive factor. Boston Consulting Group found that companies with above-average diversity in management teams have 19% higher innovation revenues than companies with below-average diversity in leadership.
The case for professionals to be themselves, even if they don’t “fit in” with the team in the traditional sense, is just as convincing as the need for diversity in management. Being your true self at work is associated with higher levels of well-being, engagement, and motivation; this has a positive effect on performance. Nevertheless, many people feel cautious about exposing their vulnerabilities at work, particularly at the start of their career.
“Being different makes you stand out from the crowd and can help you to progress your career, but it also opens you up to criticism, judgement, and discrimination,” says a web designer working for a large retail company in the U.K. “You have to be confident, and sometimes you’ll have to align yourself with others who may not agree or appreciate your differences in order to succeed or to get a task done. You have to access the situation and make a conscious decision on how and when you show the different sides of your personality.”
Sameera Rafiq, research support officer and equality and diversity lead for the School of Food Science and Nutrition in the University of Leeds (in the U.K.), encourages students and staffers to be proud of who they are. “The world is so much bigger than you think; it is filled with all kinds of quirky, mysterious, passionate, intelligent people. You admire them for their energy, so why not give yourself the same love and respect? When you spend too much time trying to do ‘the right thing,’ as defined by your peers, teachers, family, you end up being pulled in so many different directions. The only right thing to do is to be you. Say what you really think and how you really feel. It will change your life,” she says.
In the book The Glass Closet: Why Coming Out Is Good Business, John Browne, former CEO of BP, promotes self-disclosure as the best approach both for the staffers themselves and for their employers. Browne’s deepest regret remains not being able to come out as gay earlier in his career.
THE IMPORTANCE OF INCLUSION
True diversity, such as the racial diversity we see in TV series such as The Good Place, is rare. When we come across it, it feels good and right, but the reality isn’t always as agreeable as it’s pictured on screen. According to sources such as Harvard Business Review, diverse teams perform better than homogeneous groups, but, ironically, due to such a wide range of perspectives and ideas, they also have lower confidence in the results of their work. Initially, diversity feels uncomfortable.
If nothing is done to counteract this awkwardness, diversity has limited benefits and amounts to nothing more than tolerating differences, because although diversity is in place, inclusion—the “how” of diversity—is not. Every organization is unique, but the following generic principles of advancing diversity and inclusion apply to most workplaces:
- Clearly communicate business goals and performance objectives to alleviate anxiety concerning possible discrimination when it comes to rewards and promotions.
Ask employees what they need in order to be the best they can be at work. Listen. Don’t assume. People deserve to be treated fairly, with their own individual needs and preferences met.
Have formal processes in place to achieve equality and diversity objectives, such as a name-blind recruitment policy and support for staffers going through a gender transition.
Enlist help from independent third parties who can advise your staff on equality and diversity matters in a safe, confidential manner.
Foster openness, honesty, and tolerance.
Nothing worth having comes easy. Just as talented, motivated professionals step out of their comfort zones to share their vulnerability with their teammates, organizations should embrace and advance their diversity and inclusion objectives in order to achieve success that truly sets them apart from the competition.