Expertise or Tokenism?
By Christina Ryan, DLI CEO
Leadership diversity without tokenism remains an inconsistent achievement for many organisations. References to appointments made on “merit” continue to dominate conversations, yet tangible outcomes for disability leadership diversity seem elusive.
Recent conversations with highly experienced disability leaders have revealed a disturbing common thread; our substantial qualifications and expertise are what gets us into positions of senior leadership, but once we are in the room our disability apparently becomes the dominant factor for those around us.
It seems that highly qualified and experienced leaders, despite their levels of ability, still face significant ableist barriers even when they hold senior positions. Additionally, these highly experienced leaders have been told they are appointed on merit, yet they are the first to go in restructures or when budgets become tight. The Disability Leadership Institute has heard many stories, across all industries, in the last year alone. Is this merit, or tokenism?
Somehow people struggle to recognise us as experts, even though they insist that we have been appointed on merit. With so few openly disabled leaders in senior positions this is a problem. Why would someone openly identify as disabled if it results in tokenism, or when they will be first out the door during restructures or redundancies?
The road to disability leadership diversity is paved with good intentions, but while the roadblocks continue the end of the road will remain unreachable. Appointing disability leaders is one thing, keeping them when times get tough seems less important.
Disability leaders will do things differently, which means they often don’t fit the culture that they are entering. Perhaps it is these different methods of operation that make others uncomfortable. Senior disability leadership is still highly unusual and remains confronting for many others in senior leadership positions to accept. DLI members have heard colleagues ask: how can someone who is disabled also be the most competent, qualified, experienced person for the job?
Like anyone, disability leaders work hard to achieve senior leadership, yet it appears that many of their senior leadership colleagues and peers think their disability was more of a factor in their appointment than their expertise. This is unconscious bias writ large. The assumption that an appointment is token provides a convenient solution to those who feel threatened by the competence and expertise of disability leaders. After all, how could a disabled person possibly be the best person for such a senior position?
Focussing on disability to avoid recognising the competence and expertise of disability leaders is both ableist and patronising. It acts as a significant barrier to appointments.
The lack of tracking data to monitor how organisations sustain senior disability appointments is also troubling. It means that disability leaders can be last in first out when restructures or redundancies occur and there is no way of noticing that it is happening.
There remain substantial barriers to achieving disability leadership diversity, and without diverse leadership organisations lose productivity, struggle to build a diverse workforce and are in danger of going the way of many other dinosaurs.
 “merit” is a dubious concept which implies that people are appointed entirely because of their qualifications and / or expertise. Avoiding The Merit Trap (Champions of Change, Chief Executive Women 2016)
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Christina Ryan is the CEO of the Disability Leadership Institute, which provides professional development and support for disability leaders. She identifies as a disabled person.