Leadership, Management

Even if we feel powerless to change society, we can start by changing ourselves

It’s easy to feel paralysed into inaction by allegations of systemic racism or misogyny, but positive progress begins with simple changes.

When my sister had her first child, Charlie, she struggled with getting him into his babygro. I remember my mother observing her efforts and saying, with commendable restraint: “Bend the clothes, darling, not the baby.”

I think that is a great analogy for systemic change. We can feel paralysed into inaction when we are told that an organisation is systemically racist or misogynistic.

But people often don’t understand what that means. It’s easy to then take it personally and become offended because they think that they are being accused of being racist, misogynistic or whatever, which makes them defensive and less open to change.

If we think this is primarily about changing people (bending the baby) rather than tackling our structures and processes (the clothes), the people bit is harder to change.

It is true to say that the unequal structures of society as a whole are overwhelmingly stubborn. There is undoubtedly work to be done on wider cultural change in our society.

But we also know that our sector reflects society and therefore has problems with racism, sexism and all the other “isms”. So even if we feel powerless to change societal systems, we can at least start with changing ourselves.

We can make a start by changing relatively simple things, such as our recruitment processes. It’s not enough to train folk in unconscious bias or anti-racism if we still demand unnecessary degrees or a particular type or length of experience – or if we only advertise positions in certain places using exclusionary language.

We can challenge our traditional approaches to recruitment by focusing on attitudes, interest, communication ability, demonstrable listening skills and experience in its broadest sense. And we can redact as much information as possible that might trigger bias or prejudice.

When we recruit trustees at the Directory of Social Change, the shortlisting is done by one subset of trustees and the interview is done by a completely different set, so that any temptation for groupthink or bias is minimised.

We can refuse to negotiate on salary during recruitment because it can perpetuate gender and race salary inequality. Advertise the salary, and make it clear that if someone wants the job that’s the salary – no arguments.

We can look at the structure of working hours – does the way we work unnecessarily penalise parents and carers, for example? Do our meeting times make it harder for some folk to participate fully?

We can create space for those who are traditionally overlooked in opportunities by implementing an “acting in absence” system. This is where everyone gets the opportunity to stand in for more senior folk when they are on leave, so they get the chance to develop their understanding of how things operate at more senior levels and how decisions are made and communicated. And they get “seen”. This means that everyone, regardless of age, experience or background, has the opportunity to develop their leadership skills.

These are simple examples of what is within our power to do. There are plenty of others.

If you focus on the clothes you don’t have to forcibly bend the baby. The baby bends itself once the babygro is the right fit!

This article was originally published on the Third Sector website, check it out here.

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