Why Representation Matters | Kamau Consulting Group

Why Representation Matters | Kamau Consulting Group

It’s never been more pressing than the current moment to consider why representation matters. In our day to day interactions, we seldom consider how representation informs our actions. Let me put this in context as representation could mean many things. I’m referring to the representation of people’s experiences which in turn inform our understanding of the people around us. I like to consider that these experiences are an inherent part of who we are. For example, it’s essential for me as a man to understand a woman’s perspectives within multiple settings. While understanding this perspective enables me to understand a woman’s experience, it would be almost impossible for me to express those perspectives or represent those views better than a woman. This is applicable in many other settings where we can consider age, ableism, sexual orientation, race, religious affiliation, ethnicity etc. For us to be able to appreciate all these differences, we must allow these experiences to speak for themselves. Here are some common outcomes to a lack of representation.

Biases which lead to Stereotypes

Societal norms have played a big part on how we perceive roles leading to either an over or underrepresentation of those narratives based on a skewed un-informed premise. We must pay attention to what representation does to stereotypes. In a previous article, Bias-Aware Leadership, I explored how biases are an inherent part of the functioning of our brains. An overrepresentation of White Males in Corporate Board rooms and Leadership roles creates a certain stereotype. One that alienates society to a position where they cannot perceive others successfully befitting the role. Research has shown that women outperform their male counterparts in similar roles. McKinsey’s research has shown that companies in the top quartile for gender diversity on executive teams were 21% more likely to outperform on profitability. An overrepresentation of Black Males’ association to negative outcomes stigmatizes their befitting into Leadership roles.

Psychological barriers

It is difficult to perceive what you cannot see represented. A research conducted by Jennifer Lawless and Richard Fox titled ‘Men Rule- The continued under-representation of women in U.S politics’ revealed that underrepresentation leads to psychological barriers. Minority candidates perceived themselves as less qualified and therefore less electable than those who had the benefit of prior representation. As such, minority candidates (both in gender and race) were unlikely to run for an election but when they did run, they in fact performed just as good as the incumbents or better.

Blind Spots

Without a fair representation of all the experiences in any setting, you are bound to encounter disparities or gaps along the way. I came across a very troubling report (not surprising) from a local school board. A recent report found some disturbing disparities at the Peel District School Board. With the greatest asset being the diversity of the students at this school district, (83%) were racialized, 67% of school staff identified as White. Peel received a scathing report on how troubling systemic racism was entrenched at their school district. This begs the question; how could anyone fail to see this coming? The Grade school curriculum largely leaves out the Black Canadian experience and as such, teachers are not well equipped to address systemic racism as they may not see it. While Black Teachers can relate to the experience, their White colleagues may not necessarily be able to relate to it. They are a by-product of the same education system. One that does not speak to the diverse voices of the communities it serves and so how does any of us expect them to address systemic racism without the necessary tools? Institutions have also fallen into the trap of avoiding racial-based data, largely driven by policy and practice that seeks to treat everyone equally not realizing that if anything, these efforts hinge on a fair representation of experiences in our communities. Unfortunately, this is a poor outcome that could and should have been addressed strategically from the get-go and the sooner everyone recognizes the importance of representation, the better outcomes we can all have. 

Breeding ground for ignorance

As discussed in my previous Bias-Aware Leadership blog, when faced with unfamiliar settings, the human mind will use short cuts from widely applicable or misinformed associations such as the stereotypes to inform decisions. In one incident at the Peel District School Board, a school staffer suggested changing ‘February to Fro-Bruary’ in recognition of Black History Month. Clearly ill-informed of the Black experience and very distasteful to say the least. In another incident, there were concerns of Islamophobia where students were provided with French Curriculum material that were clearly Islamophobic in a school district where Muslim students account for 22.4% of the student community. In my previous work environment, I recall a white colleague of mine after returning from a nice vacation sharing a joke with the team about his tan and suggesting that he got burned to the extent it made him look like me. There were lots of laughs. I never flinched which quickly quelled the last laugh. My lack of taste to the joke was met with being a little too sensitive which again I refused to tolerate and said nothing. I wonder if the gentleman understood that when black skin burns (not tan), it in fact appears white and I could not fathom the thought of passing this on as a joke. I chose to rise above it and said nothing.

Poor decisions

Without hindsight of experiences you ought to know, you are bound to make very poor decisions. Students at the Peel district brought up concerns about factional violence amongst South Asian communities however, teachers and administrators either ignored or were indifferent to the violence, seeming to think it was characteristic of that ethnic group. 

When I was growing up just like any other Black kid, I did not have a choice of the colour of skin-tone for my band-aids. This of course is not something that will cross your mind if you identify as White or with similar skin tone however a reality for those who do not up until the last decade or so. As a matter of fact, Band-Aid Brand by Johnson and Johnson announced in June of 2020 (99 years after it launched it’s first band-aid) the launch of different skin tones in its band-aids. This is 17 years after Ebon-Aide introduced this concept to the market and was slowly squeezed out of the supply chain by big retail. There are many other poor decisions that are still pervasive today in kids toys, books, and craft. Black barbie was introduced to the world in the 80’s. I do however recall seeing this young girl (non-white) a few years ago at a toy store say to her Mom that she thought Black Barbie was ugly, a message that she had clearly internalized, and likely from a lack of representation. (I intentionally refrain from identifying the young girl’s race to avoid a stereotype and to show some of the impacts on non-white kids) As a matter of fact, a big retail store was reported to have dropped the price of Black Barbie to nearly half of its White counterpart at one store.

Pre-Conditions for tokenism

Blacks continue to be underrepresented in Leadership roles up to and including the board level. In some cases, they are not represented at all. According to the Ryerson University Diversity Institute report, in Toronto where 7.5% of the city’s population is Black, there was almost no Black representation in corporate boards (0.3%). ‘Black board members in Montreal are also starkly underrepresented, holding only 1.9% of board positions despite making up 6.8% of the population in Greater Montreal— in fact, the study found no Black board members at all in the corporate sector, the voluntary sector, the hospital sector, or the education sector in Montreal’. 

Following a year of racial unrest after the tragic loss of George Floyd, multiple organizations are making commitments to enhancing representation especially at the board and executive level given the deplorable numbers above. This however risks the inevitable- tokenism; the practice of recruiting underrepresented groups devoid of consideration with an effort to give the appearance of equality while none really exists. I like to consider this simply a paint job exercise. Organizations must consider that tokenism is highly ineffective and a waste of invested time and money and most importantly does tremendous damage to the victim. It is unfortunate that some organizations do not seek to understand the gap and quickly turn to performative P.R action. While increasing representation of Blacks in Leadership roles is great, psychological safety is not achieved overnight. Strength comes in numbers and one ought to pay attention to the psychological safety when trying to ensure all experiences are represented. I am unlikely to be authentic in a room where my experience is not represented or understood and as such, I cannot be as productive.

If there was a place of great opportunity to learn from one another in all our differences, then nothing beats our workspaces. This is where we all congregate and where innovations, products and various services are generated, an outcome that is a product of the representation of views, perspectives, experiences, backgrounds; all we could consider differences that are an inherent part of us. These differences should not represent a threat to any of us but an opportunity to enhance ourselves, to learn from one another, to understand differences, to enrich culture, to disrupt stereotypes, to spark curiosity, to encourage innovation, to envision creativity and most importantly, an opportunity to connect with the human element. 

We must create a balance. If there is room for all our inherent differences, then there is enough room for all differences to be represented at the table. Every single time we fail to create room for those experiences we are unfamiliar with, we lose the opportunity to learn from those experiences, to represent those experiences, to inform our actions and most notable, we shut ourselves out by creating psychological barriers for those experiences. We simply end up shaping a society full of norms and practices that are ill-informed and filled with stereotypes that prevent us from advancing the human element. What are you doing at your workplace to ensure people who do not necessarily represent your experiences are in fact represented at your workplace? How have you recently informed yourself of experiences you are not familiar with? How confident are you that your Leadership team is well-equipped to inform itself of the experiences within your team or that it represents? All things considered, is there any over or underrepresentation within your team and how is that helping or hurting the understanding of the clients, markets or people you serve?

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