Transforming Exclusive Spaces

Transforming Exclusive Spaces

Our world is complex, difficult to navigate and one that requires thoughtful resolve. Through my own experiences and observations, we live in a world that is largely exclusive. One that caters to a select group of people while leaving others out, tilting power and privilege dynamics which eventually influence the majority. I say this having benefited from this imbalance at times while also being on the receiving end of the short end of the stick. I am also cognizant that not everyone may necessarily recognize exclusivity in this context. We all experience inequities differently based on various factors such as identity in gender, race, religious views or background, education, profession etc. This recognition of `exclusive spaces’ was not always apparent to me and may not be apparent to you as you read this, so I encourage you to keep reading. Let’s explore exclusive spaces.

What is an exclusive space?

An exclusive space is one that is devoid of consideration for inclusion. It does not necessarily have to be intentional, and most aren’t, but the impact and harm on the individuals are more or less the same. We could simply summarize it as the opposite of an ‘inclusive space’. So how do we end up with exclusive spaces?


We are all biased in some way, shape or form. Biases come in all shapes or forms and is an inevitable part of the human brain. The mind works incredibly by simplifying everything for us and it is in this process that we should pay attention to the shortfalls. In a previous article, Bias-Aware Leadership, I discuss biases at length which would be necessary to highlight in this context.

The mind works incredibly by categorizing things together and making connections to make it easier for us to choose between different options then takes short cuts in order for us to make quick decisions. Matthew D. Lieberman, David Rock, Heidi Grant Halvorson and Christine Cox at the Neuroleadership Institute condensed 150+ biases into five main categories that make up the SEEDS Model ™ which I have summarized for a quick analysis. (I encourage you to read the report to avoid my expedience bias)

  1. Similarity: The tendency to favour people who look or think like us over those who don’t.
  2. Experience: The tendency to favour our own perspectives over others.
  3. Expedience: The tendency to favour familiar & easier options as opposed to complex ones.
  4. Distance: The tendency to favour addressing the here & now and not the distant future.
  5. Safety: The tendency to favour less-risk by obsessing with the negative outcomes instead of positive ones.

When faced with unfamiliar settings, the human mind will use these short cuts from widely applicable or misinformed associations such as the stereotypes to inform decisions. I should mention that the shortfalls that we suffer through this process today is largely a distortion of character and history that is catered to some identities over others. While some may argue we should leave the past in the past, I should mention that the distortion in the past was intentional which benefits many today, the results being largely `exclusive spaces’. So what do exclusive spaces look like?


Characteristics of exclusive spaces

Homogeneity: Driven by similarity biases, there is a tendency to develop teams that look and think like us. This purview tends to largely apply to those who have not been able to integrate into interculturalism. I discuss interculturalism at length in a previous article, Deconstructing Your Equity, Diversity & Inclusion Journey. Spaces that are homogeneous have similar identities and that could be described in many ways by looking at various intersecting backgrounds such as age, race, size, ability, gender, education, etc, simply anything that is outside the scope of the homogeneity created where one identity is allowed to proliferate over others. Unfortunately, this can be very unwelcoming for anyone looking from the outside through any one of those lenses. I remember many years ago while working at this organization where we had one specific team where everyone had worked together in the past as part of a team in a previous organization. They were all hired by the same boss and despite a diversity in racial backgrounds, they were simply all the same. When this boss left, the entire team followed.

Lack representation or diversity: Besides being driven by our similarity biases, we could also consider expedience biases where we favour familiar settings over complex ones. A lack of representation means the team lacks the experience and understanding of other perspectives and as such, those experiences remain well misunderstood.

Blind to exclusivity: One cannot fix what they do not necessarily feel. You just don’t know what you don’t know. There are many spaces that feel they have genuinely done everything to ensure they create an environment that is open and fair and presents equal opportunity for everyone. Some spaces even go as far as tout their `respectful workplace policy’. The failure here is that words are just that, words. It’s one thing saying something but it’s another when we model the behaviours or take action to intentionally create inclusive spaces. For those that have been historically marginalized, `healthy workplace or respectful workplace policies’ can be `fluff’ to them if not followed by modeled behaviour and action. I discuss this in a previous article, Whistles of minimization. Unfortunately, most individuals that are historically marginalized are not necessarily at the table crafting these policies and as such, they are likely to end up being ineffective. Those affected by these exclusive spaces generally have some of the best solutions and as such, we cannot expect those who have not experienced exclusion to develop the best solutions.

Seek to respond and not understand: This is well defined by `Defending your concept position’. When exclusive spaces are challenged, they automatically go into defense mode whether that be of reputation, self, identity etc without substance or giving considerate thought to the issue at hand. Even after the painful discovery of hundreds of remains at former residential school grounds, I recently observed a politician defend the concept of the birthing of Canada as a nation and that they were concerned with powerful activist voices who were trying to cancel Canada’s pride. Exclusive spaces simply seek to respond and not understand.

Disinterested in understanding differences: Exclusive spaces have little to no interest in heterogeneity. Most of these spaces are swimming in the denial and defense stage of the Bennett Scale of the Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity which I discuss at length in a previous article. Unfortunately for many, given our society is largely exclusive, there have been very little repercussions if any only up until recently following the racial unrest in June of 2020. With a distorted historical view of the world largely influenced by our environment, little will change unless there is intentional effort through both systems and institutions to correct this distortion.

Monoculturally baked: Some exclusive spaces will require serious transformation as it will be very difficult to have them re-define themselves in a way that is inclusive. Consider fine dining where most of the menu items in fine dining are generally North American and North or Western European cuisines. All other food items face epithets of `ethnic food’ and the like. The Economic Times ran a great article on this back in 2019. The concept of fine dining is one that requires a thoughtful look at in terms of design, presentation, style etc to unpack the impact on other cuisines that are automatically excluded. This colonizing `othering’ mindset is nothing worth celebrating today where some of these spaces are so monoculturally baked that it will be difficult to disentangle from without serious radical change.

Breeding ground for ignorance: Homogeneity creates a lost opportunity to learn from other perspectives. The experiences in a homogeneous environment are limited by the environment created harbouring a breeding ground of both people and their ignorance. As reported in a CBC article, The Canadian Armed Forces hired a peer mentor who had been registered as a sex offender to work with the force’s sexual assault survivors. The institution failed to recognize the ignorance they had created.

Transforming Exclusive Spaces

Confront Bias

Biases are a pesky barrier towards creating inclusive teams. The art is in recognizing that they are inherently part of human cognition and as such, both systems of person and structure must be designed to counter them. In addition to this, any historical distortion of people should be unlearned by dedicating time to decolonize our mentalities and institutions.

Here as some tips that PWC shared on confronting bias.

  1. Broaden perspectives: Homogeneity kills diversity of thought and cultivates bias
  2. Be objective: Subjectivity limits your scope and harbours blind spots
  3. Overcome stereotypes: Stereotypes influence objective thought in effect perpetuating bias
  4. Challenge assumptions: Assumptions limit our critical thinking ability

Integrate into interculturalism

For us to take any corrective action in creating inclusive spaces, we need to first of all identify who we really are, define our constructs in order for us to understand when we are creating barriers & perpetuating discrimination. If you identify as part of a dominant group, you will always have something to learn from a non-dominant group. The Bennet Scale is a helpful framework in assisting and transforming both individuals and organizations towards integration into interculturalism which I discuss at length in a previous article, Deconstructing Your Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Journey.

Develop an intersectional mindset

Humanity is diverse and we all experience the world differently. Our identities largely inform how we show up in any space. Identities are complex. Identities are paradoxical. Oversimplifying identities evokes many assumptions. When we view experiences from our own baseline, we alienate the realities of others. I encourage both individuals and organizations to step out of their own baseline and recognize those who we may have sidelined in structures that were historically designed for a select few. I discuss intersectionality at length in a previous article, Dissecting Intersectionality.

Recognize the power of representation

A lack of diversity in your space is a ticking time bomb. I cannot identify any possible benefit from maintaining a homogeneous space. Enhancing your space with a fair representation not only provides you with a broad perspective of identities and experiences, it also organically self regulates by continuously identifying where we can all do better. Feel free to take a deeper dive into Why Representation Matters. This has to be a careful, thoughtful and intentional transformation as there always lies a risk of tokenizing as we transform exclusive spaces. In a previous article, Unmasking Microtokenisms, I discuss practical steps that organizations can take to avoid tokenizing their employees in a way that is meaningful and purposeful.

Courage and commitment

Confronting entrenched norms and practices is complex, difficult and personal for many. Unfortunately, there isn’t much growth or transformation in the comfort zone. I encourage both individuals and organizations to show courage by stepping outside their comfort zone if they have any intentions of transforming into inclusive spaces. An inclusive mindset is unafraid of how politically or culturally unpopular the right thing to do is. There is nothing wrong with not knowing what you don’t know. An inclusive mindset displays humility by recognizing personal limitations and seeking some expertise. This commitment in itself is a powerful signal to those who have historically been excluded. I encourage everyone to be patient while maintaining commitment to being persistent in creating inclusive places where everyone is allowed to thrive. I hope this article has been helpful in your journey. Feel free to leave me your comments below.

 Author: Kevin Kamau, is the Founder and President of Kamau Consulting Group, a Management Consulting Firm focused on creating opportunities for inclusive participation through Inclusive Leadership

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