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I'm Not The Diversity You Think I Am.

Updated: Feb 25, 2022

January 2022

I’m a senior manager in the energy industry. And I’m female. I’ve had my fair share of managers and colleagues sagely nod their heads when I get that promotion or coveted line-of-business role with the big budget and multi-layer reporting structure and state “Ah, diversity card.”. They’ll inevitably follow it up with “Oh, but you’re good, too.”.

But I have a terrible secret. One that I have been wrestling with for a long time. I’m afraid that I’m not the diversity that they think I am. Instead, I represent a very specific segment of successful-minority that, to the health of diversity and inclusion initiatives, can be even more dangerous than the majority: I look different, but I work the same.

I’m a huge advocate for diversity and inclusion. My mom is an engineer in a generation where the female engineering workforce was a staggeringly low 10% or less (we’re now about 25%). Pioneers like her braved the secretarial wrath (who is this women who thinks she’s a man?), the patronizing co-workers (can you get me a coffee?), the ill-fitting Personal Protective Equipment and the isolation of being lonely in a crowd. Women like my mom paved the way as role models, were empathetic friends to other lonely female professionals, and they changed some of the structures and systems that actively inhibited other women from joining the industry. But we seem to have hit another ‘ceiling’, at least in the energy industry.

I mentor a lady named Jaz. She’s smart, driven, empathetic and kind. She’s been looking for ways to expand beyond her core technical competency in reliability engineering in order to gain some leadership experience and to continue growing in her career. She transferred to the UK from Nigeria as part of her personal journey, and anyone who has the gumption to do an international move with a family in tow is someone who has the will and the ability to move mountains!

Jaz and I have been working together for a while, first on self-exploration, so she could answer that ‘what do I want’ question, and then strategizing on how to build the network and experience base that gets her there. After each of our calls, Jaz puts time into reflecting and documenting our conversation and next steps, with a clarity and commitment that makes me smile every time I get an email from her. She relentlessly follows through. I know Jaz will meet her own definition of success. She just will. And she inspired me to take a page out of her book; following one of our sessions, I sat back and reflected on the conversation, my own motives, and the underpinning beliefs that informed the insights we shared.

I reflected that the advice I give is exactly what worked well for me – and what underpins that advice is the suggestion that we need people like Jaz to fit into the majority mold. I had a sudden and stark realization that what I’m actually advocating and enabling is changing people to match the system.

I was telling Jaz – a smart, driven, empathetic and kind engineer that she needed to be more extroverted, more social, more assertive in presenting her insights, more active in specific activities outside of work, more selective in her networking. Maybe what I needed to do was to get Jaz to show me the hurdles in her way, and I could work to remove them. Because, reflecting on her and what I’d learned about her, Jaz. Did. Not. Need. To. Change. If I want to create real change, I need to change the system to accommodate a broader range of people.

This has fundamentally shifted my perspective on diversity and inclusion initiatives. I see so many videos celebrating our differences and exhorting us to see the beauty in the rainbow of people around us; reminding us to welcome the whole person; all of these principles and concepts that are logically irrefutable and morally correct. No one can disagree with the ideas and sentiments expressed. And more to the point, no one is disagreeing with those concepts. However, despite that agreement, hiring managers and HR policy are doing exactly what we were doing before, with none of the jarring, uncomfortable conflict that is necessary to move people to action.

As I take an honest look at my desire to be a D&I ally, I’m spending a lot more time in introspection. I’m starting to realize that I am not just a part of the privileged majority, I’m actually – both implicitly and explicitly – holding up that system through the advice I’m giving to other ‘diversity candidates’ and through my actions at work. I need to start looking at what made me successful, and instead of passing along the advice for how others can follow in my footsteps, I need to figure out how we change the entire pathway to allow different people to climb in different ways. Instead of teaching players to win, I want to change the entire game.

I’m a senior manager in the energy industry. And I’m female. But I’m not the diversity that they think I am. I’m not the diversity that I thought I was. I want to share my terrible secret, because I need others, both like me and not like me, to help in this fight.

Together we can change the game.

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