A few years ago, an arguably provocative ad appeared in Canada. It wasn’t provocative because it contained scantily-clad women, sex or violence. Rather, it featured a woman in hijab and signalled an important shift in public acceptance of how difference manifests in the physical world.
‘We don’t care what’s on your head. We care what’s in it’, the ad from Lakeridge Health hospital in Ontario read, the words surrounding the image of a smiling woman in hijab and a doctor’s cloak, stethoscope around her neck.
It wasn’t significant purely because of what it said about inviting in talent above appearance; the ad ran at the same time that Quebec’s then-premier, Pauline Marois, proposed a charter of ‘values’ that would limit the use of religious symbols in the workplace.
Four years on, this is still of great relevance. In fact, debates around religious symbolism in public life and the workplace have only intensified given the influx of migrants throughout Europe, the US, the UK and Australia.
At the heart of this, at times hysterical, debate is a desire to stifle change, and the pervasive notion that all are welcome only if they blend in.
The diverse workplace
While it’s important to think about creating a diverse workplace at recruitment stage, it’s equally important to foster an inclusive space that develops awareness around how a workplace caters to different personalities, beliefs and ways of life.
According to a survey by recruitment firm HAYS in 2016, 58 per cent of Australian employees want to see more diversity in the workplace – in terms of representation of gender, age, culture, Indigenous and disabilities.
In the same survey, which polled the views of employees and employers in 239 organisations, 66 percent of employees identified their organisation as a workforce featuring various cultural backgrounds. Gender diversity fared the same – 66 per cent of the workplaces were gender diverse. Sixty-nine per cent said various ages were represented in their workplace, while 30 per cent had a workforce that included Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. Finally, 26 per cent said their workforce included people with a disability.
We spend a lot of time in the workplace. In some ways, it’s a microcosm of the outside world, and this is why creating inclusive workplaces is so important. It can have a far-reaching impact on what people take away with them when they clock off for the day.
Religion and culture
For the purposes of this piece, I’ll focus on religion and culture, having experienced firsthand how it can create divisions and issues in the workplace.
Organisations understandably run according to certain codes and systems of belief. Companies have their own cultures – this presents strengths, but it can also place pressure on people who have certain limitations if the culture demands certain beliefs and behaviours that don’t involve the actual work.
For example, some workplaces may place an emphasis on social cohesion outside work hours – Friday drinks being a standard example, or even lunchtime meetings that require socialising. There’s nothing wrong with encouraging such interaction, but what happens if your star employee is a teetotaller? I’ve met more than one professional who has complained about the bullying they were subjected to if they chose not to drink (and not necessarily for religious reasons).
In my own experience, I have felt this pressure manifest to the point of bullying – mockery around my beliefs and life choices, and coercion to conform. On more than one occasion, when I was fasting during the month of Ramadan, I was made to attend lunch events despite it being unnecessary for me in terms of my job brief. I can never prove the intent behind the demand; I can only say how it felt – that I was being singled out and almost, in a way, taunted for being different. At the very least, I felt there was a lack of compassion or care. Ultimately, I was there to perform a job and I didn’t ask for special treatment. Rather, I had hoped for understanding where flexibility seemed feasible.
Being ‘different’ can make people uncomfortable, and while teething problems are to be expected, it’s harder to stomach when it comes from people in positions of leadership.
And this is what it comes down to: what kind of workplace can managers foster? What can they do to ensure that it’s talent celebrated, not appearance or social conformity? How do we make sure that people are accommodated within reason? And very importantly, how can we encourage greater diversity in workplace leadership, where Australia is showing a lack?
Despite the difficulties I’ve faced, I have seen how good management creates a more successful workplace and better results from their staff. In some jobs, I was given flexibility during the month of Ramadan where it didn’t affect the rest of my team. I could work from home some afternoons, for example. This might not be possible for some people, and that’s understandable. But this is just one small example of how workplaces can integrate practices that foster acceptance, create a more harmonious workforce and a more vibrant company culture.
For my part, I have seen multiculturalism’s greatest strengths play out in the workplace. It’s not simply in a token day that seeks to celebrate harmony and acceptance, though they indicate a well-meaning desire to vocally endorse our cultural differences. But in the same way interfaith events tend to preach to the converted, it’s only through the interaction that true acceptance begins and can flourish.
It’s in seeing people as human first, their ‘differences’ to how you live your life and see the world beings secondary to the person they are. There is no threat in someone celebrating religious holidays, fasting on certain occasions, dressing in a certain way and avoiding particular foods. A more diverse gathering of people brings a diversity of thought, and this can lead to extremely positive outcomes for employers and their workplaces.
Written by Amal Awad, LEXIGO: Written by Amal Awad, Lexigo: Amal is a journalist and author, and has worked as a producer at ABC Radio National. Her latest book, Beyond Veiled Clichés, explores the real lives of Arab women.