In your boardroom my biggest worry is Norm

By Dr J Harrison

I have the most amazing job title ‘Harbinger of Change’, and I am a Principal Consultant at Thoughtworks with twenty-plus years of experience. Yet when I walk into your boardroom my biggest worry is Norm.

Now don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against Norm. Genuinely can be a nice person.

When we enter the room and start to talk to your leadership team, Norm and I can both be nervous as we’re about to present ideas and know there will be challenges.

Norm can walk in and be authentically Norm.

He is a man, he is straight, he is white, he was born in the UK to a middle-class family, he went to a good school and a good university and got a degree (or two), he doesn’t have caring responsibilities, he is able-bodied. He is Neuronormative (he doesn’t have ADHD, Autism, Dyslexia or another learing difference), and he appears to have good mental health (he doesn’t have Depression, Anxiety, or Schizophrenia). He seems to be about the same age as everyone else in the room and perhaps went to school with the people around the table.

Norm looks like everyone else in the room. There might be a couple or people like Ahmed, Yinka, or Norma, and sometimes an Akshata, or a Khadisha; these are only on the most diverse boards.

So, why would a visibly non-binary, queer, disabled migrant from a working-class background, a bottom-of-the-table school, with a long history of poor mental health, think they could have a place in this boardroom, next to Norm?

With this example of Norm playing in my head, how can I see myself being taken seriously by your senior leaders or your board? Why would someone like me even think they can be in the room?

What are the things that only I can bring to the conversation?

I am lucky. I bring the voice of someone who has survived against the odds.

The average life expectancy of an out trans or non-binary person is less than my current age. Living to be older is rare because we struggle to get the mental health and health care support we need — not only for being trans or non-binary, but also for the normal everyday things life brings.

Our education can be fractured, broken up by periods of non-attendance due to bullying. Being sensed as different makes us vulnerable to abuse from pupils and staff. We often give up on education because it is hard to do well at school when you are struggling to be seen. We take courses that are below our potential ability because we want out of those institutions fast.

Our families, and our relationships, can hinge on us fitting in with what people think we are. We can be shunned, rejected, broken up with, and made to feel we are not worthy of love when we start to talk about how we want to be seen when we express our authentic selves.

So we work to hide ourselves, damaging our mental and physical health to try and fit and look like Norm, to stay employed, housed, educated, and loved.

I am lucky. I bring the voice of someone who can see the advantages I have had.

Despite going all the way through primary and secondary education at the bottom of the table schools, I got into a University and managed to get several degrees. The advantage I had was that I had parents who had the financial ability to value my education over my contribution to the household. I could work some evenings, weekends, and holidays, and I could remain in education. Many of the people I was at school with did not have this advantage and left school or university to get paid work without being able to make the most of their potential.

I have the advantages of not only being white but also of being from the right sort of colonized country. My features, my name, my accent, and my father being from England, meant I could walk in with the right passport and, while a migrant, avoid the costs of visas and arrangements to show I should be here.

I am lucky. I have had people show me solidarity and care.

When at one point I was unemployed for an extended period, friends would feed me. Offering dinners and drinks, and sometimes a covering loan. One friend supported me when a company I was freelancing for took over 120 days to pay an invoice and I ran out of money for food.

Friends have picked me up when I have been at my worst; more than once friends have worked to ensure I am not left on my own, that I have eaten, that I have slept. That I am going to see the doctors and therapists. That I haven’t just walked out of my life.

One workplace in particular, Thoughtworks, stood by me when my mental health literally shattered. Even when I was in a safe place I couldn’t cope with the grief and anger of the workplace bullying and harassment I had been through. They got me the right sort of help, and gave me time and space to recover.

I am lucky. I am here, and I am in the mental space where I can be authentically me.

This is why my voice in these spaces, talking to senior business leaders, matters.

I have a perspective that no one else in the room has. I have been through things that make me question “Why Norm?”, that allows me to see the world through lenses no one else around the table will have.

If everyone in the room has always had a steady job, would the way food poverty and fuel poverty interlink be part of the discussion around staffing patterns?

Would anyone else have dreams of unrealized utopias where publicly stated support for LGBTQ+ people is not only for Pride month?

Would we question the diversity of hires into a graduate program if we expect them all to have the same degrees? Why do they need time at university over time on a retail floor or call center? Are we making adjustments for disabilities, neurodiversity and learning differences?

Having me in the room is about making space for me, listening to my voice, valuing my opinion, and understanding my passion.

Including me is about challenging the structures that got us all around the table.

Doing that means I can walk in and be unabashedly, unapologetically, authentically me.

So, could I walk in to talk to your leadership team?

Originally published at https://www.thoughtworks.com on June 7th 2022.

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