I am currently serving with one of the most diverse organisations in the world – the United Nations. My role as a United Nations Military Observer with the United Nations Truce Supervision Organization (UNTSO) means I get the privilege of working directly with incredibly diverse and interesting people from every corner of the globe; 26 corners in fact.
As I write this piece from an Observation Post in Israel-Occupied Golan, I reflect on the group of 15 Military Observers that arrived at the mission the same time as myself. There was representation from nine countries; and these were people with different backgrounds, beliefs, ages, genders, and ways of thinking.
Working in small teams on the Observation Posts has proved to me that the success of a UN mission requires respect. Both respect for diversity (being a UN Core Value) and the valuing of input that comes from the lived experiences of all your team members.
Here on this mission, I am witnessing diversity working because it needs to.
The UN teams here have created a space – not a physical space, but time, focus and applied value – for incorporating the innovations from team members. This space leads to change, including improvements in processes and procedures, creating inclusive and harmonious work environments, and keeping the mission focused and relevant to the evolving situation.
These benefits are not exclusive to my team here. I call on you to reflect on what it means to create a space for change in your own organisation or department. Consider what part diversity plays. In what ways can organisations empower and invest in the output and initiatives that come from a group of people with different lived experiences?
My A B C of Diversity
The ABC of Diversity is a great start-point to create a space for diversity and positive change within your team or organisation:
Acknowledge the work that is already happening.
Seek out and acknowledge the spaces that may have already been created in your organisation or department. These may be either formal or informal; valued or not valued; working effectively or producing the desired intent.
Seek out initiatives or outputs that amplify the voices of diverse groups that hold up a mirror to the organisation they exist within. These initiatives act as windows into overlooked parts of processes and procedures, and can provide a clearer view of the challenges that employees face in their day-to-day work.
These groups form because they see a gap in perspective and fill it with initiatives that exist in the margins, but are not marginal. Creating a space for open dialogue is a challenging task, particularly when you are attempting to measure the value that is applied to, and received from, these spaces.
Acknowledge that the hard work that goes into their creation of these initiatives is often overlooked, under-valued and under-resourced.
Benefits of the space for who and for what purpose?
Organisations need to know their “why” for creating and supporting these spaces. If your workplace wants a diverse viewpoint on a topic but ignores the needs of “invisible” voices, people will not engage with the initiative. It needs to be authentic from the outset, and all outputs must align with the reason why the initiative was created in the first place.
Your space could create opportunities for mentoring and building support networks, retention, career empowerment, institutional policy awareness, or knowledge and opportunity sharing.
Once you define a clear “why” with a socially conscious bottom line, everything else should fall into place. The team will see the true benefit of being a part of the initiative; and they will feel heard and connected to the cause.
Challenge the reason for an Action Gap.
There will inevitably be obstacles and a degree of push-back when creating new spaces for once-marginalised voices. The key risk is that the ideas and changes suggested by these spaces get siloed, or even worse – silenced all together. If you are creating a space where diverse voices are encouraged to provide their view on an issue, then this space can’t stand alone.
The key challenge around creating diverse spaces for change is the ‘action gap’. This is the gap between the identification of the problem (such as discriminative career limitations, biases in policies, or better ways to manage primary-carers) and what the organisation actions to fix it. The barriers to taking effective action can be complex and varied, but organisations must learn to identify and overcome them, so the solution is embedded, enforced, and normalised.
Organisations welcome (and seem to feel entitled to) the ideas and outcomes of initiatives set up to address these issues, but they do not invest in the hard work that goes into it. This may reflect a broader issue of organisations having an entitlement to people’s time outside of paid work hours – which sees many diverse groups having to solve their own concerns during unpaid work hours.
A bonus step, but the most important – D for Deliberate Action
What can organisations do? What can YOU do?
Organisations can place tangible value on supporting the creation and running of spaces that draw out the concerns of diverse groups. This may be in the form of sponsorship, mentorship, resource investing, or the organisation deliberately and actively promoting the space. And most importantly, acting on the outcomes of diverse forums and working groups.
They need to instill a culture of reflectiveness. Only reflective organisations are able to transform themselves into truly inclusive workplaces, taking full advantage of the significant benefits of diverse teams operating at their best.
A reflective workplace would see diverse spaces as windows into overlooked parts of the organisation, providing a clearer view of the pitfalls and challenges that its members face. Informed and empathetic leaders emerge from these initiatives —and so do stronger organisations that see better retention.
Let’s discuss some steps to kickstart you on the process.
- Firstly, it is important to see where people stand at the present and know what their desires, needs and visions are for the future.
- The next step is to incorporate inclusivity and foster accessibility. People who want to be in your diverse space have different challenges and energy for participation. Be mindful of who wants to access your space and design ways to share information.
- The last step is to embrace authenticity. People are desperately seeking human connection in new spaces and discussions. Open up about your “why” and the reason for starting the space by telling your story, and encourage others to do the same. Be frank and realistic when discussing ways that the issues shared can be made into actionable outputs. When you prioritise action-based solutions, teams take notice and are more willing to engage.
And try to make the space comfortable and enjoyable, because at the end of the day it’s not up to these spaces to lead organisational change. The duty lies with those who hold ‘formal’ power to ensure they are committed to actively listening to, amplifying and embedding the outcomes.
Highlighting the work of a variety of voices means that diversity initiatives only have to look to pre-existing spaces to find a plethora of diverse voices to listen to — organisations cannot claim ignorance anymore. The game has changed.
I am writing this piece from the watchtower on my last night of a 10-day shift on the Observation Post overlooking the demilitarised zone between Israel and Syria. I have just finished dinner (sharply at 1830 h or there is a mutiny!) with a female Danish Officer who speaks fluent Arabic, a male Nepalese Army Officer who owns a large amount of farming land in Nepal, and a male Canadian Officer who runs the popular Boxing YouTube channel, Boxing Ready. Dinner time is a chance for each team member to showcase their nation’s unique cuisine. The conversation shared during that dinner hour is truly special.
We are a diverse team working in a foreign country that has created a respectful space to share our stories – and we are all better people for the experience.
About the author
Lyndsay Freeman is a mother of two and a Transport Officer in the Australian Army. She was the Chief
of Army Scholar in 2020, where she completed research on gender, peace and security. Lyndsay co-founded Propel Her – Defence Women’s Leadership Series in 2020 with Shamsa Lea. She is currently
serving as a United Nations Military Observer in the United Nations Truce Supervision Organization in Jerusalem. You can follow her on Twitter: @LyndsayFreeman8 or LinkedI