Shall We Dance?

Working toward an inclusive environment where people can be their authentic selves KUDZAI CHIGIJI

Soon after joining the corporate world, I was confronted by the subtle nuances of affirmative action, transformation, diversity and inclusion. For the first time in my life, I discovered and had to unpack the layers of my existence based on what people saw when I walked into a room: a black woman.

Given that inclusion does not seem to be common sense to everyone, we now have rules, protocol and even legislation around it. I wonder why something that is supposed to be completely natural—being an open-minded person who respects everyone, regardless of classification—has been engineered to the point that it feels almost unnatural. The outcome of having rules around diversity and inclusion is often a desperate, mad rush to tick the boxes. This leaves many spirits crushed and a wave of confusion, and results in little progress.

I have spent the past decade working tirelessly to ensure that I am known for the value of my work and that I am never reduced to my race and gender. In the past, I have conformed so that I could fit in and belong on the teams I worked with, to feel less like an outsider because of my race and gender. But along this journey, I have had a few “aha” moments that have helped me accept myself, grow, live authentically and create safer spaces for others to be their authentic selves.

Having diversity in the workplace to fulfill legislative requirements is not good enough if the intentions behind the efforts are not genuine. This is what separates diversity from inclusion. The former is simply a description of what can be seen, whereas the latter is a description of what matters: the interactions and how people are made to feel.

“Diversity is being invited to the party, inclusion is being asked to dance—and I don’t think that you can do one without the other,” said Suki Sandhu.1

And don’t we all want to be asked to dance?

Serving the Public

As a profession, we aim to serve the public’s best interest. But how can we deliver on this lofty goal if we cannot serve the best interests of all of the people with whom we interact on a daily basis?

We want to develop products, influence significant portions of the financial markets and create policies that have ripple effects across all socioeconomic groups. Can we achieve this without considering the health of our workplaces and colleagues?

If this desire is genuine, how can we serve the best interests of society if the profession does not mirror the world we want to serve? Allow me to state the (not so) obvious: Inclusion is a business imperative.

According to research by McKinsey & Company, companies in the top quartile for racial and ethnic diversity are 35 percent more likely to have financial returns above their respective national industry medians.2

The organizations for which we work can only benefit from truly inclusive work environments. The cognitive diversity we so relish is a result of the diverse backgrounds (and therefore perspectives) that are invited to and sincerely included at the table.

Representation Matters

When Whoopi Goldberg was just 9 years old, she was watching TV when Star Trek came on. There, on screen, a black woman appeared. Goldberg couldn’t contain her excitement. She called out: “Come here, mum, everybody, come quick, come quick. There’s a black lady on television and she ain’t no maid!”3

This experience opened a whole new world to a little girl who went on to become a TV and movie icon. In her own words, “I knew right then and there I could be anything I wanted to be.”4

This story encapsulates why we need role models with varying backgrounds from all parts of society in our profession. This isn’t just to prove that the qualification is accessible to everyone who is willing to work for it, but to show that everyone is genuinely welcome in the actuarial profession. What has inspired me most me during my career has been working alongside people who have supported me, welcomed me and genuinely enjoyed delivering valuable work with me. Being recognized and respected for my talent, investment, hard work and vision has been more rewarding than the qualification itself.

Counting the Real Cost

Let’s be honest with one another. The actuarial profession is an elite one, with significant barriers to entry. It is an expensive qualification to pursue and a costly profession to stay in. We must evaluate the requirements as they affect those from underprivileged backgrounds who wish to enter the profession.

It is very clear that certain champions have invested heavily in opening up the profession to more people, and to them, we are forever grateful. They have given more than money. Bursaries, internships and mentorships have played pivotal roles in creating access to learning opportunities. More important, families and communities have been changed by these generous investments.

But we also need to evaluate our day-to-day (often unconscious) biases in the workplace. Hiring practices, choice of language, accessibility of training and social norms are often hidden barriers that make it challenging for people to stay in the profession. The workplace is probably the most important learning space during the training process. Attention and awareness of others’ needs can vastly improve another’s experience of that space. After all, you can’t expect other people to dance to your tune at all times.

A Word on Language

Being able to speak a particular language with the right accent, quickly or without any grammatical flaws is not an indicator of intelligence—or humanity—and should not be the measure by which we issue opportunities and kindness. It is unacceptable for one’s actuarial abilities to be assessed by one’s ability to speak a language that is neither the main business language of the country, nor the language of one’s training nor one’s native language.

Language is widely used as a subtle form of oppression, even in 2018. Being sensitive to other people’s language abilities takes little effort, yet it makes a big difference in their lives. A couple of years ago at an International Actuarial Association (IAA) meeting, an announcement was made that we should keep meetings in English and that we should all speak slowly and loudly, and take care to enunciate. English is not the gold standard, but it is a comfortable middle ground for most people when we speak slowly and use simple words. It was a small gesture that made an indelible impression on me. That one comment brought with it a great deal of self-reflection and resulted in a week of much more engaging (though slightly slower) conversations with people from all around the world.

Let’s Undress the Window

I would be remiss if I did not call out “window dressing” in this discussion of diversity. This practice of hiring an individual purely (or even mainly) for the purposes of optics is demeaning, not just to the newly hired man or woman, but also to the organization that fails to cultivate the full potential of the individual.

The politics surrounding affirmative action legislation and the demands of the markets in different jurisdictions are nuanced. There is no clear formula, but at no point does it require that any employee be reduced to a face, color, sexuality or disability. This steals from the intellectual capital we are working tirelessly to raise, as well as how the individual is viewed by his or her peers. The idea of (and use of the term) “diversity hire” is never in anyone’s best interest.

We are incredibly fortunate to be part of a profession with exceptionally high standards that are supported by rigorous academic and practical training. The last time I checked, the standards were the same for all of us.

It’s Not All About Race and Gender

Diversity and inclusion are about recognizing that we are all different, and we need to be aware of this and create safe spaces to be authentically different. Our individualism and uniqueness can serve collective interests. However, we are often told to change ourselves to be accepted by the collective.

There are strong factors at play when one is the first in a family to go to college or work in a corporate environment, or if English is not the primary language spoken where one comes from, or if someone’s family did not have much when one was growing up. The workplace conversations about weekend golfing and triathlon training can come across as alienating very early on in that person’s career. If you are a golfer, no one is saying you must stop. But have you ever asked your colleagues what they enjoy doing over the weekend?

Have you considered the challenges for your disabled colleagues? Even something as simple as adequate shade for a colleague with albinism, or a ramp for the colleague in a wheelchair, or making sure not to schedule key work events during religious events can create a more welcoming and inclusive environment.

I know. There is so much to consider! How could you possibly be expected to remember it all, let alone care? You are not required to hold hands and sing “Kumbaya” at work. But you are expected to be considerate, and that can start by being inquisitive. Listen to the stories of those around you. Willful ignorance is dangerous, and none of us can continue to hide behind “I didn’t know” when we could have simply cared enough to ask.

Pride, Prejudice and Preferences in a New Dispensation

Kenya Denise McQueen: “It’s not a prejudice, it’s a preference.”

Brian Kelly: “Sure, it’s your preference to be prejudiced.”

This exchange between characters in the 2006 movie Something New has stuck with me. We are all allowed to have our preferences and to make decisions based on them. But we need to ensure that we do not impose our preferences on other people or use them to evaluate the worth of other people.

Key to my personal growth in the more recent past has been studying personality types. The revelation for me has been, “We are fundamentally different from one another!” Learn about the people around you instead of just expecting them to be like you. At the core, we have differences that are hard to overcome. That is not to say that we should not try to improve ourselves and our relationships—we should all be striving to grow and develop. But we need to accept each other’s fundamental differences, and that is impossible if we never learn what those differences are.

Despite all the titles, credentials and designations we carry before and after our names, we are first and foremost humans. If you think you are better than anyone else, even for a second, you need to check yourself. The person sitting next to you, whether in the office, the train, the bus or a queue, is no less or more human than you are.

If I have any words of caution for those who do not see the need for change, simply have a look at global events, whether in Hollywood, politics, global banks, large corporations or the newest startups. The tolerance for dogmatic and unaccommodating perceptions of humanity is dwindling. Haughty pride will need to make way for sensible humility as the world becomes more intertwined.

There has been great progress in the recent past, but we must also evaluate ourselves as individuals and continue to demand better from (and for) ourselves, not just from others.

Make the Circle Bigger

As we seek to strengthen diversity and inclusion in the actuarial profession, bear in mind that this is much bigger than the profession. This is about cultivating healthy relationships with a broad range of people. We cannot do our jobs effectively and be true to our mission when we are oblivious to the needs of the public. On this journey, we must carefully examine how it affects our lives in a broader sense. It is not enough to put in great effort in making everyone on our multicultural team of actuaries feel included if we then refuse to change our attitude toward the cleaners in the office or our neighbors. We must open up in all corners of our lives.

Inclusion does not, in any form or fashion, equate to the exclusion of any one group of individuals by race, gender, sexuality, religion and so on. If your neighbor has more, it does not mean you must now have less.

We are all allowed to be afraid. In fact, it is a natural reaction. But we also have a responsibility to ourselves and to those around us to assess the rationality of our fears and push past them. We must not act out of fear.

Hello From the Other Side

If you consider yourself a minority, (historically) underprivileged, a person of color or one with any kind of disadvantage, I hope you have been paying attention. The preceding applies to you as well. It is very easy to consider yourself a victim. At times, that is the unfortunate reality. But it is possible to reposition yourself.

We all need to carefully consider how accessible we have made our worlds and how we treat people we consider more privileged. Differences can be scary to some people. Your world might look intimidating. Some people might even feel they are not welcome. Talk about your culture, and talk about it with pride. When conversations that seem alien to you come up, feel free to ask questions and then confidently discuss your family traditions and pastimes. Your cultural and religious holidays are in no way inferior, less interesting or less socially acceptable. You might be surprised to discover your volunteer work on Saturday mornings or your family naming traditions are far more interesting to your colleagues than the usual office conversations. It’s time to bring your music to the party as well, and to change the rhythm from time to time.

I have taken it upon myself to educate my colleagues about my Shona culture—whether it is the trials of being raised by African parents in the diaspora, the ironies of lobola negotiations, cultural faux pas or our lengthy funeral proceedings. Conversely, I have learned a great deal about Irish, Tswana, Zulu, Igbo and Afrikaans traditions in the process. In between trying to beat deadlines, fixing code and seemingly endless meetings, new worlds are opening up and there is often a good laugh and a powerful lesson around the corner. It also makes for more fun at work.

We need to redefine corporate cultural norms and ensure that they do not create unnecessary barriers for anyone. I understand that there are limits and progress might be slow, but every effort counts.

So What Now?

I’ve dropped a few hints as to what each of us can do to create safer and more inclusive environments for more diverse communities to grow and thrive.

  • Tell your story with a healthy sense of pride. Find the beauty of your story. Ask others to tell their stories.
  • Listen. Learn more about your colleagues—in all ranks.
  • Challenge the assumptions you have about other people by letting them feel comfortable to be their most authentic selves in your presence.
  • Challenge your fear of differences.
  • Help someone who you think might not be able to return the favor (that might mean helping someone who is your leader).
  • Think about the day-to-day needs of others. Take their needs into consideration as you plan work activities.
  • Give yourself a chance to learn and intentionally make changes based on what you learn. Ask as many questions as you need to in a sincere manner. A genuine and sincere spirit will get you much further than a fake smile and half-hearted gesture.
  • Be the voice of reason in a world where even the obvious truth is threatened daily. You can’t be neutral about blatant discrimination.

We all have an obligation to speak out against injustice. Any form of discrimination needs to be called out. Our methods might be different, but silence cannot be an option. There is nothing politically correct about neutrality. Neutrality gives perpetrators the confidence to soldier on.

If you are reading this article, you are in a position of privilege in some way. You may even be considered influential in some circles. Have you ever considered how you could use your privilege and influence for the benefit of others besides those who are already privileged or look like you? What about for someone who might never be able to repay you aside from a simple “thank you”? With freedom, privilege and influence comes great responsibility.

When you look back, I hope you are found on the right side of history. The world remembers everything nowadays, thanks to modern technology. But more important, in the words of Maya Angelou, “People will never forget how you made them feel.”

Shall we dance?

Kudzai Chigiji, FIA, FASSA, is the founder of AfricansThinking and a director of Abovax, both pan-African organizations operating across health care and education. She is based in Johannesburg, South Africa.

Copyright © 2018 by the Society of Actuaries, Chicago, Illinois.