Develop, support, promote disability leaders

Tag Archive: diversity

  1. Not Like You

    A row of small white bowls on a wooden surface, each bowl has a different spice or liquid in it.

    By Christina Ryan DLI CEO


    Diversity means not like you.


    “Not like you” means people who approach problems differently, achieve outcomes differently, and who might look and sound different.


    Disability Leadership Institute members regularly report on ways that their workplaces insist they look the same, sound the same, approach problems the same, and work to achieve outcomes the same way as their manager or other team members. Sometimes this seems to be about “fitting in” and sometimes it seems to be generated by the manager’s discomfort with being around a disabled person, or in approaching work in a way that the manager isn’t familiar with.


    This is a form of discrimination and harassment. It is also an effective way to prevent the disabled person from working freely and productively. It is a very effective way of obliterating the diversity in the room.


    Somebody who stops being who they are and “fits in,” who works to change the way they work, is assimilating. Assimilation is not diversity, it is sameness.


    The point of diversity is to embrace difference and acknowledge its contribution to innovation and problem solving. When we put two heads together, we get a different outcome. When we put many heads together, we get a very different outcome.


    Why then do we have so much trouble embracing diversity in our workplaces? Difference, people who are not like you, makes for better decisions, better outcomes and faster problem solving.


    Many disability leaders report leaving their jobs because someone new comes into the team or into management. The most common reason is that the new person expects them to be someone they cannot be. They are expected to lose their difference, to become the person that the new person wants. To be just like the new person. To be not disabled. This is assimilation; you are welcome here so long as you look, work, and behave like me.


    Everyone is different. Every human is different. Yet, for some reason, disabled people are expected to not be different. We are expected to twist ourselves into being the same as other people so that we fit in.


    This is damaging, it is reducing the effectiveness and productivity of highly qualified staff, and it is preventing the realisation of inclusive and diverse workplaces where all are welcome.


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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.

  2. Expertise or Tokenism?

    A close up picture of the face of an owl with big yellow and black eyes and very brown and white spotted feathers.


    By Christina Ryan, DLI CEO

    Leadership diversity without tokenism remains an inconsistent achievement for many organisations. References to appointments made on “merit”[1] 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.


    [1] “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.

  3. No Business Case Required

    No Business Case Required

    An old grey suitcase with  gold coloured snap closures. It is sitting on a luggage rack.

    By Christina Ryan, DLI CEO


    When working to improve diversity in board rooms and executive teams disabled people are told to make the “business case” for being in these rarified environments.


    Yet, other groups, most notably those who created these spaces, and have been there all along, are not asked to make any business case to be present. Rather, they continue to be appointed to positions based on “merit” – that is, whether they are in the right networks and “fit in” to the existing culture. In other words, people who look like the people who are already there.


    If a business case was required our parliaments, board and executive rooms would lose most of their current population. Yet somehow people from preferred networks continue to be appointed without any business case to prove their worth.


    Why, then, are disabled people expected to prove our worth before we are allowed admittance?


    The “business case” is another gate that disabled people must pass through to get to a world where we are equal. A gate that is kept by non-disabled people. An ableist gate which demands that disabled people prove we can operate in a space created by non-disabled people where they set the rules and can be comfortable, and face no challenges to their status quo.


    There is a wealth of research about the benefits of diversity; how it improves bottom lines, decisions made, productivity outcomes, and innovation levels. Yet each diversity group is required to prove its worth before being allowed admittance. Now, apparently, it is the turn of disabled people to prove our worth, to put our business case to pass through this gate.


    Business cases are reserved for those on the outside of the right networks, those who are hoping to be allowed in, not those who have the right friends and find themselves already on the inside.


    To require an entire diversity group to make a business case is systemic discrimination, otherwise known as ableism.


    To exclude an individual person because they are disabled is discrimination, also known as ableism.


    There are plenty of highly competent and qualified disabled people who should be appointed to boards and executive teams. It is not the lack of a business case that is preventing these appointments. It is the discomfort of those on the inside, those whose status quo is being challenged. Those who somehow feel that disability equates to incompetence and inexperience.


    Some of these people fear being upstaged by a disabled person who is more competent or qualified than they are. Unfortunately, many of these people also hold the keys to the gates of equality and they won’t let us in.


    No business case is required to advance equality for disabled people. Rather it is the willingness of those keeping gates to open them.


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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.





  4. Playing the substitute game

    The Substitute Game


    4 Blue Russian dolls of various sizes siting in a group.

    by Christina Ryan, DLI CEO

    If you were asked about your unconscious bias, or prejudice, what would you say? For many, it is a light touch to check on conditioned prejudice, and then attempt to change inbuilt habits. For others it is about denial and a claim that they aren’t prejudiced.


    All of us have conditioned prejudices. Assumptions that we make about “others” who are not like us. These assumptions are usually unconscious and based on decades, or centuries, of social norms and values that are part of the societies we live in.


    Checking our prejudice can be an uncomfortable activity. Turning an inward gaze to check on how inclusive or accepting we are can produce results that feel awkward.


    A nice little trick that can assist in checking where we land on inclusion and valuing of “others” is to play the substitute game. If you replace the diversity group you are talking about with another, would the sentence still sound okay?


    Some commonly heard assumptions for the disability community suddenly become statements of prejudice when we play the substitute game.


    1. “Its great to see you doing your company directors course, but disabled people aren’t good at being on boards.”


    Replace with – “its great to see you doing your company directors course, but people of colour aren’t good at being on boards.”


    1. “Don’t apply for your masters degree, you won’t meet competency because of your disability”


    Replace with – ““Don’t apply for your masters degree, you won’t meet competency because of your cultural background.”


    1. “You won’t be able to move into management. Its too demanding for disabled people.”


    Replace with – “You wont’ be able to move into management. Its too demanding for a woman.”


    1. “Disabled people can’t do politics and make tough decisions.”


    Replace with – “LGBTIQA+ people can’t do politics and make tough decisions.”


    Suddenly, these everyday common statements about disabled people become very unacceptable when applied to other diversity groups. All of these statements are real, some are actual quotes sourced from the LinkedIn posts of disabled people.


    Anyone can play the substitute game. Simply replace the diversity group you are talking about with another. It works best when you replace the “other” diversity group with your own. Would you accept being talked about like that? Would you agree with the assumptions if they were made about you?


    Prejudice and bias are uncomfortable. They are even more discomforting when we realise it is our own prejudice or bias. Until it is uncovered, though, it cannot be addressed. Very few people are deliberately prejudiced. Usually, once we realise that we have been conditioned to prejudice we are then able to address it and move towards the valued diversity that is a far richer way forward.


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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.

  5. We need more tea ladies

    We need more tea ladies.

    A brown cup of tea in a glass cup, sitting on a woven mat, next to it is a bright yellow flower.

    by Christina Ryan, DLI CEO

    Imagine if the solution to achieving gender equality was to simply pump more women* into the workplace at the bottom. Knowing that if enough women were introduced into a workplace at the entry level, over time they would drift upwards to become board members and executive management.

    Several decades ago gender equality specialists realised that nothing would change until women were appointed directly to leadership positions – the classic adage “you can’t be what you can’t see” was born.

    Understanding was reached that to change the culture, makeup, and gender diversity of organisations, a whole of organisation shift was required. That more gender diversity throughout all layers of an organisation would be needed and that this meant appointing women directly into leadership positions, not waiting for decades in the hope that they would ultimately drift upwards from their positions as tea ladies or receptionists.

    It was a tough battle. Concerns were raised that suitably qualified women didn’t exist and could not be found, yet it became clear that this was prejudice talking rather than reality. Suitably qualified competent women did exist and appointments were made, in increasing numbers.

    There remains a gender imbalance in leadership in most fields. Men remain the dominant presence in most board rooms and executive suites; however, it is also well understood that this must change, and the change is underway.

    Nobody suggests anymore that the gender imbalance in leadership will be addressed by pumping more women into the lower ranks of organisations and waiting for an outcome. Laws have been changed, regulatory bodies have been established to monitor their implementation (like the Workplace Gender Equality Agency), and recalcitrant organisations are now publicly named and shamed (for example ASX200 organisations with no women on their boards). Lobby and research groups have emerged with good resourcing and the ear of governments.

    Getting to equality is understood to require systemic change, long term commitment, and proactive appointments. When women are not appointed, questions are asked.

    Curiously, this rich decades long understanding of how to achieve gender equality is not being translated into the pursuit of equality, or equitable outcomes, in disability where entry level employment is still seen as the key solution to effecting change. Disability leadership is not factored into diversity programs, nor is it legislated or monitored in any way. There are no agencies tasked with pursuing disability leadership outcomes, nor is there any research to understand the experience of disability leaders or the pathways to leadership they have taken. The National Disability Strategy mentions disability leadership once, in passing, on page 33 – it is not an area of focus and has no measurable outcomes attached to it.

    It is assumed that by building a greater concentration of disability at the entry level, that over time disabled workers will drift upwards into positions of leadership and decision making. Over several decades this approach hasn’, yet it remains the primary method used to achieve disability equality.

    The Disability Leadership Institute hears stories from members about being stuck in entry level positions for decades. Something that rarely happens to any other target diversity group. No organisations have disability leadership programs working to address systemic barriers, nor is there any obligation in policy or law that requires organisations change their approach (including to track disability, monitor or report it), so they don’t.

    When disability leadership is discussed, it is referred to as a very long term goal requiring a greater presence of disability at the entry level that will ultimately translate into leadership. This forgets that decades have already been lost using this approach unsuccessfully, with no evidence that continuing to use it will suddenly produce results. It also forgets that this approach has long been abandoned in other diversity areas as useless.

    When equality is pursued in all other diversity areas, including gender, cultural diversity, First Nations, and LGBTQIA+ the answers always include building a greater presence in leadership – making sure that “you can be what you can see.” While it is early days in some areas more than others, somehow finding suitable leadership candidates to appoint is seen as possible, gets resourced and is increasingly achieved.

    Why then does this not apply in disability?


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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.


    *The term women is used throughout this article in a binary sense as most of the gender equality work over many decades has been undertaken with a binary lens in place, and most laws and programs still use the term women in a binary sense. We look forward to a time when all women and feminine identifying folk are automatically understood to be included in the term “women” and are embraced at all leadership levels.