In Part Two of my interview with Boston-based diversity consultant Sam Ellison, we discuss how both upper management and general employees have responsibilities when creating institutional change. (Read Part One here.) Stepping back to recognize the overarching guiding principles that a company uses may be helpful when aiming to shift company culture. As Sam says, “Ultimately, if we are thinking about racial justice or disability justice, not everyone identifies as disabled or identifies as a person of color, or not everyone identifies as transgender,” and therefore numbers might not tell the whole story. Read on to learn more.
Katie Newton: Sam, in Part One, we talked about what workplace diversity is, why it’s valuable, and some tools for assessing whether your company’s makeup reflects the greater community. If you want to make changes, where do you start?
Sam Ellison: “If you’re realizing, for instance, that you don’t have enough diversity on your team, figure out what work needs to be done before you even seek that out . . . So, you might have somebody come in and interview people and ask them what their experiences are like, but you also might check in with the leadership team. Often it’s difficult for folks in the mid-level or entry-level [positions] to have enough clout to implement those sorts of changes. It’s important to have buy-in from your company leadership because they’re often the ones signing the checks or approving the budget or granting permission for folks to come in and do training.”
KN: You’re saying that if the company does not really value neurodiversity and inclusion, changes will be few and far to come by. What else?
SE: Above all, it’s important to look inward first. People need to check in with where they’re at in their hearts. Because, ultimately, I think some of this work can feel transactional: it’s like, I bring in somebody to do a training and now, ‘We’re done!’ That’s not effective. Maybe it will be effective for a day or a couple of weeks, but we have a lot of unlearning to do if we want to seek to be anti-racist or anti-sexist or anti-discrimination.
We are all battling these ways we’ve been socialized or at least ways we’ve been educated to think about the world or conducting business. And it’s not just that intellectual aspect of things: it’s, ‘where do I stand on things in my heart?’
- Do I want to work with people who have autism?
- Do I want to work with black people or brown people?
- Do I want to work on a team that’s led by all women?
And oftentimes that answer might be ‘no,’ and it’s important to do the work to figure out why that is and go about combating that internally for yourself.
KM: These questions are essential to ask within leadership. Sam, you’ve said you’ve noticed that companies often seek out efforts to become more diverse, but don’t yet feel comfortable with such changes. And that not addressing these issues can result in high turnover rates, where people may leave when they don’t feel seen or feel like their colleagues understand their experiences. You also ask, ‘How do we harbor an environment that’s desirable for people of all neurological types?’ With autism specifically, a company might be enticed to hire someone because of preconceived notions of how their particular skills and work style might benefit a company. How do you approach diversity from a whole person, empathetic mindset?
SE: One way to combat this is to be vulnerable and honest with expectations. By saying ‘I don’t understand this’ or ‘this is an area that I am struggling with’ and processing through these issues with people who have that particular identity, so you’re not having one type of worker do too much work for you, or not seeing what they need from the company—you’re ensuring that you’re doing your due diligence in thinking about what you might be missing in a given scenario.
Challenge what leadership looks like within the company. I think we are all, particularly in this country, accustomed to very consistent strands of white male leadership that looks like a certain thing… Think about how our environment, our company, our space would benefit from a different type of leadership—with someone who has autism, or has a type of disability—how that would affect the way we sell our products. How that would affect the way we conduct our research. And that there’s so much richness in the different ways people experience the world and the different ways they might come into leadership.
KM: Thanks, Sam. I’m looking forward to sharing the last part of our discussion soon!
Questions or comments for Sam or me? Join the conversation below.
On Dealing with Tokenism
Sam admits that while tokenism is almost impossible to avoid, it can be manageable. For example, if you only have one autistic person on your team, they’re very likely to feel tokenized because they don’t have anyone else around who shares their same identity. However, if the staff can do the work to check their ableism and actively aim to grow, really wanting to understand someone who’s autistic and engaging with them in a way that does not make them feel “othered,” you can start to change that dynamic—even when a company might not yet look as diverse as it could be.
If the interactions change, the culture will begin to shift. Sometimes these changes need to be encouraged by the leaders of a company, and other times they may come from non-management employees who know things need to be done differently. Advocating for diversity training and related changes will benefit everyone. By getting to know coworkers and building relationships and friendships, you may start to truly “see” each other and better understand others’ perspectives and experiences.