Inclusion means both being there and feeling like you belong

Representation is only half of the equation.
Representation is only half of the equation.
Image: Jopwell
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Thirteen years ago, I was an intern on Wall Street, at an investment bank. The day my program began, my stomach was in knots. This world was completely foreign to me. Would I be smart enough? Would I make the cut and receive a full-time offer to return to the bank after graduating? And most of all, why does barely anyone on the trading floor look like me?

I had these questions despite a lifetime of experience navigating worlds that don’t often intersect. My name, Khalida Ali, is Arabic. It literally translates to “immortal light.” My mother is Baptist, my father is Muslim, and yet I primarily attended Catholic schools growing up in West Philadelphia. In learning to travel between worlds—whether they be religious, socio-economic, or business—I didn’t just learn to endure the gray spaces of life; I set up shop and made them my home. 

Being from an inner-city environment, I knew struggle. I’d seen it, I’d felt it, and I’d fought it. So when I started working on Wall Street, I saw that struggle I had grown to know so well juxtaposed with a world of access, opportunity, and resources. Despite my familiarity with places and spaces where there weren’t many people that looked like me, I still grappled with “but, why?”

I was still thinking about that question as I began my professional career. Shortly after being invited to join the investment bank full-time, I knew I wanted the opportunity to more closely examine the factors that impact who succeeds at an organization. While at the bank, I eventually moved into diversity and inclusion (and I now manage diversity and inclusion initiatives at Zendesk).

What I’ve learned from life in the gray area is that inclusion is both an action and an experience. In order to be included, you must first be present. Once there, you must feel as though you belong. Both these elements must co-exist. This is the art of inclusion.

We’re at a moment where tech companies have a responsibility and a huge opportunity to make a difference and set a precedent. Here are places where I think we can start the sustained actions it will take to do better.

Stop treating diversity and inclusion like a buzzword: Treating diversity and inclusion like a trend ignores that the US Census projects that the United States will be a majority minority country by 2045. It disregards communities that are systematically impacted more than others and it cheapens the effort of bringing others into the fold.  Think of diversity and inclusion instead as the opportunity to think about how one engages in a world that is so quickly changing.

Change what you can: Taking on established power structures is daunting, so begin by taking ownership for what you can actually change. This manifests in various ways. Ask yourself: What am I a gatekeeper to? The focus here is on personal agency. By recognizing your agency you can then focus on action. If we all commit to using our power, privilege, and influence to actively create opportunity and challenge the status quo, it will pay off.

Understand the science of bias: We all have bias, which, when left unchecked has the potential to form stereotypes, prejudice and discrimination. It becomes a habit that is built and fostered over time.

I often look to the research of Dr. Patricia Devine from the University of Madison, Wisconsin, a social psychology professor who has sparked decades of research on the control of prejudice, to understand why thinking about prejudice as a habit is powerful—because it not only helps us understand why responses that we don’t want persist, but it also provides a roadmap for change. Devine claims this change can only occur with levels of:

  • Motivation (to eliminate the habit)
  • Awareness (of your personal vulnerability to the habit and how it manifests)
  • Strategies (to address said habit)
  • Effort (over time to break that habit)

This level of understanding is important because everything projected in a macro context has micro relevance. The bias present in the work has the potential to impact what happens in your office, in boardrooms, and even dinner tables.

Take the research done on gender bias among STEM faculty. When shown the same resume with different names—John and Jennifer—John was rated higher based on competence, hireability and was even offered a higher starting salary and more career coaching.

On the other side of the coin, Dr. Devine points out that just like understanding what does work when confronting bias, it’s important to understand what doesn’t:

  • Stereotype suppression: banishing stereotypes from your mind
  • Colorblindness: not acknowledging race when interacting with minorities
  • Belief in personal objectivity: people can never truly be objective. In fact, the people who most strongly believe they are objective are actually the most biased. It’s better to accept the humbling possibility that we may be unwittingly complicit in the perpetuation of bias, and we can equip ourselves with strategies to mitigate those biases

Move beyond the business case for diversity and inclusion: Yes, companies that are more diverse have the potential to make more money. We’ve read the McKinsey study and have seen this proven time and time again. That’s important and heartening (and makes my job easier).

But let’s focus on the social impact of diversifying our companies. By creating D&I programs that include everyone (women, people of color, disabled, veterans, parents, the LGBTQ community, etc.) we are able to solve broader issues.

One of the United Nations Sustainable Development goals is reduced inequalities. What the organization found in its assessment is that by reducing underrepresentation of certain communities (in policy, workforce, etc.), we actually begin to break the cycle of poverty. When there’s an economic vitality within communities that have historically been underrepresented, people can begin to invest in their neighborhoods, invest in their children, and have access to better services.

Take a stand and get uncomfortable: It’s important to create the space for various perspectives. However, in my career, questions that I’ve seen crop up around D&I include, “By focusing on diversity, are we lowering the bar?,” “Shouldn’t we just focus on whoever is the most qualified?,” and “Shouldn’t we just focus on the business?”

Remarks like these are underhanded and detract attention from what is ultimately trying to be achieved, and we have to be mindful of the environment that is created as a result. As uncomfortable or daunting as it may be, speaking up in a constructive way when someone says something detrimental is important and can lead to a lot of positive outcomes.

Make an investment in the next generation: While quick wins are nice and still move the needle, the point is to play for the long haul. Do what you can in the present, but also prepare our best and brightest for the future.

We see this in the work of various amazing organizations globally and in the US, including Hidden Genius Project, Black Girls Code, Women Who Code, Year Up, Gawad Kalinga, mits, and so many more. You can also support the next generation by implementing structured mentorship or sponsorship programs in your workplace.

Inclusion happens with deliberate action. Let’s work together to create spaces where everyone belongs and harness the strength in our collective energy.