Lived experience – is it necessary to be a DE&I leader?
By Peter Crush on 17 August 2022
In 2019, when the Institute of Fundraising hired respected D&I consultant, Peter Fleet, as its permanent equality, diversity and inclusion officer, what can only be described as an unexpected storm erupted. Despite being described by his CEO as the “best candidate for the job,” furore was created – bringing up, as it did, the thorny topic of ‘lived experience’. In Fleet’s case, the accusation was clear. How could a middle-aged white man possibly understand Black/racial disadvantage?
The debate about ‘lived experience’ (and its necessity or not), echoes debates about job suitability that now exist in other walks of life – such as whether straight actors should play gay ones. It’s a tricky one to broach, suggesting as it does that a distinguished career in diversity – which has seen someone develop a deep understanding of all inclusion issues – is trumped simply by whatever someone’s gender, sexuality or race is. So are we really saying experience of a protected characteristic is the main qualification for making a good DE&I professional?
Credibility and authenticity
“Lived experience certainly enables you to have more credible and authentic conversations with leaders, and it also makes employees more likely to approach you if they know you’ve been through the same things they have,” says David Newns, who formerly headed D&I at Imperial Brands.
Although Newns believes having other skills matter – two of which he says are being able to influence change, and being able to identify what challenges exist in businesses – he still argues lived experience remains “top” still. He says: “I speak as a gay man, and when you’re trying to do diversity, you’re always facing those who are skeptical of change. Lived experience gives that vital piece of authenticity – the bit that says you understand what it’s like for someone to feel different.”
Not surprisingly, there will be those that have a different spin. Some might suggest simply being an ‘ally’ is what’s needed. Sufia Hussain Parkar, inclusion, equity and diversity director for ad agency Wunderman Thompson EMEA agrees that the debate is more nuanced: “Being a successful D&I leader requires someone who is accountable, decisive and who is an ‘action taker’,” she says. She adds: “These may not be the words that first spring to mind when we think of D&I, but this only makes them all the more pivotal.”
Rather than lived experience being essential, Hussain Parkar has a more subtle take – what she calls it being “near essential”. She accepts a D&I leaders’ job is “more difficult if we have not experienced discrimination or struggled with bringing our whole selves to the workplace,” but suggests it is not the be-all and end-all. “Great leadership is more than about lived experiences,” she says. “The true essential skills are to be receptive and open to diversity of being.”
Curiosity and mindset
The vast majority of experts d&i Leaders spoke to agreed lived experience is an additional benefit rather than a prerequisite: “This is a debate where things – rightly – shouldn’t be so black and white,” says Matt Harper, CEO at the Marketing Practice and who is also its DE&I champion. “Sure, lived experience opens your mind, and it tackles the fact people’s default position is often that everyone is the same. To me though, the bigger requirement is having curiosity about other people’s experiences.” He adds: “You also have to watch out, that if you are gay, or Black, people can think you push your own agenda too much.”
“Being a good DE&I leader is around mindset, not how you look,” argues Professor Julie Davies, deputy director of equality, diversity and inclusion at UCL Global Business School for Health. “It’s not about strutting around, but how you role-model and educate others.”
Some argue the real value of lived experience is knowing when to utilise your existing experience and skills. Says Rachel Youngman, deputy CEO at the Institute of Physics, who has recently launched several D&I campaigns: “My previous career was in social justice, and it was here I learned that having a deep sense of justice and fairness is important.” She adds: “D&I leadership is also not really about one person. My role is to co-create a vision, the environment and culture that places people at its heart, and where there are many D&I leaders throughout the organisation. I have a role to communicate why that is important and to show resource commitment.” Supports Mary Beighton, director of people and culture at Zuto: “D&I reaches such a broad range of themes that effective D&I leadership becomes more about having empathy to build relationships with other individuals who have a lived experience. Then it’s about amplifying this voice to inform strategy and actions.”
Does this mean lived experience doesn’t matter at all? No, but – seems the consensus of opinion – it needs to know its place. And Sheree Atcheson, group VP of D&I at Valtech issues this word of warning to anyone who thinks otherwise: “DE&I does tend to attract people who have different lived experiences – be it because they are a person of colour, like myself, or because they are gay, or disabled, or whatever it may be. But we’re all in dangerous territory if we’re hiring someone purely because of a specific characteristic rather than the skills they bring to the job. “ She adds: “Sure, if you have two people, with equal skills, and one person’s race or sexuality gives them a different view, then great. But hiring just because a person is part of X group is wrong. Hiring that way is not setting them up for success or giving the role the due regard it deserves.”
d&i Leaders is a global community of senior diversity, inclusion and HR focused professionals, looking to collaborate, network and accelerate their workplace inclusion strategy.