Inclusion, diversity, and gender equity

Explorations in inclusion, diversity, gender equity and innovation in UNHCR

In this project, we took some time to reflect on the most latent of innovations. We believe the quest to discover and discuss inclusion, diversity and gender equity will improve our work environments and, crucially, our services to Persons of Concern.

We wanted to dig beneath the surface of our conversations around diversity and inclusion to help paint a picture of the changes UNHCR wants to see. To this end, we have collated written explorations of pressing diversity challenges in the organisation, extended recorded interviews with colleagues who have experienced the difficulties of exclusion and merits of inclusion, and an artistic examination of the visual landscape of human interactions and systematic bias formation.

On an individual level, we have found that an awareness and appreciation of the values of diversity and inclusion, particularly in an organisation such as UNHCR, are a vital asset to the international civil servant’s professional arsenal. The emotional, ethical, and economic arguments in favour of this movement are the natural conclusion of the values that underpin the humanitarian cause more broadly.

By innovatively embracing the realities of the role of cognitive and behavioural psychology in our work culture, we stand to gain dividends, where before we found detriment. If you don’t believe that this conversation is really relevant to you, then you run the risk of being a part of the problem.  

We need the honesty to reflect on our biases and behaviours, the courage to change them, and the humility to hasten reflection once again. If you would like to join us in the pursuit of an even more diverse, inclusive and equitable UNHCR, get in touch and share your reflections.

Read more stories from the ‘Reflections’ series below.

Sowing the seeds of diversity in UNHCR’s Brazil operation:

A compelling conversation on the shared truths, challenges and experiences of being a gay professional at UNHCR and a call to action for creating a movement for diversity at all levels of the organisation.

How you can take simple actions for gender equity in the workplace:

Women are no less ambitious than men, however, their criteria for success may be evaluated differently. What can you do to change your workplace culture and push for equity?

How to make our ‘working language’ work for diversity and innovation:

Communication in multicultural workplaces hinges on the interaction of diverse experiences and perspectives – and each interaction tells a story. How can we be more mindful and re-conceptualise cross-culture interactions?

Taking a rights-based approach to disability inclusion at UNHCR:

Disability inclusion is a rights issue and the onus is on us to change in the same way that our initiatives on gender equity demand cultural and behavioural change in our systems and workplace.

Listen to soundbites from audio interviews from the ‘Reflections’ series.

Why we need to develop a lens to constantly question our own unconscious biases.

How marginalising and excluding people has a moral and financial price tag.

UNHCR’s work with communities cuts across race, sexual orientation, and ethnicity – but do our programmes reflect their diversity?

When we speak about race at UNHCR – can we move beyond sensitivity to creating a space for honest and intentional conversations?

Listen to the full interviews of the ‘Reflections’ series.

Ending exclusion often involves breaking a silence, and silences around biases and prejudice can be difficult to break. In this interview, Andrea leads by example in demonstrating the virtues of the frank conversation. Having formed an informal discussion group with colleagues and friends to voice issues of gender bias and discrimination in a safe environment, Andrea shares insights into the types of work culture challenges that women encounter, and how we begin to form effective solutions to what is a complex structural problem.

The drive for disability inclusion is often held back by several common misconceptions: that disability inclusion is a medical issue, and that disability is grounded in the impairment. Kirsten advocates a rights-based understanding of disability inclusion, with a focus on creating inclusive environments and tackling prejudices. Covering the challenges ahead from policy to attitudes, this interview makes the case for disability inclusion as a way to enhance innovation and organisational capacity.

Babusi gives firsthand insight into how a diverse team, benefitting from a range of backgrounds and a diversity of thought, brought to bear innovative results. Going beyond the traditional, siloed metrics of diversity – e.g. gender, race, age – a nuanced understanding of diversity and inclusion looks to facilitate the collision of perspectives and experiences informed by a spectrum of educational, class, and occupational backgrounds.

For members of the LGBTI community, some aspects of working in UNHCR and the humanitarian sector present unique challenges. Navigating instances of homophobic attitudes and heteronormative policies is a reality for many LGBTI colleagues inside and outside of their work environment. Sonya, Vice-President of UN-GLOBE, tackles these issues head-on. Mapping both progress we’ve made and areas for improvement, Sonya encourages engagement and action to fully realise our vision for a more diverse and inclusive organisation.

Caroline, Senior Advisor on diversity and inclusion at UNHCR, talks harnessing the organisation’s talent, committing to diversity and inclusion, and asks, “Is good enough what we really want to aim for?” Depicting the organisations achievements and ambitions for inclusion in the months and years ahead, we learn what we can all do to shape an ever more inclusive UNHCR. With practical examples of taking on inclusion challenges in your team, this interview explores how taking responsibility for racial and gender dynamics can unleash new potentials.

Vini and Diego, friends from their university days in Brazil, see a need to refocus our vision of gender and sexuality in the humanitarian sector. Putting the personal to the political, they suggest ways we can relate to each other that make the organisation more inclusive to LGBTI colleagues. In respect to transgender and intersex rights, Vini speaks of the need to be more inclusive within the LGBTI community itself, while Diego outlines the importance of being able to be open and honest with one’s colleagues.

Why innovation needs diversity

By Cian McAlone, UNHCR Innovation Service

If ‘innovation’ refers not to the presence of novel ideas, but to the process of realising ideas that create value, then an innovative approach to diversity will be concerned with the process of making diversity work; diversity is the precondition, and inclusion is the process. The diversity of a team reflects the number of ideas and competencies around the table, whereas the inclusivity of a team reflects how such expertise is leveraged, how biases and hierarchies are understood and navigated, and how physically, culturally, and socially accessible it is to contribute and operate in the workspace. Why is diversity important to innovation? How do we make multicultural teams more inclusive? What do diversity and inclusion mean when designing solutions to refugee challenges? This article will help you to answer these questions.

Many of the qualities and values that we associate with innovation are definitionally diverse and inclusive: imagination and creativity are processes that are built on a multiplicity of ideas and understandings, synthesised in new and divergent ways. Ideation, experimentation, and scaling are all made possible and enhanced by a diverse expertise, leveraged in an inclusive team culture. Many pioneering examples of humanitarian innovation have, for example, refugee and community-led design at their heart. Whilst not all community-led initiatives are diverse and inclusive, projects that move beyond a tokenistic inclusion towards a comprehensive inclusion benefit from a diversity of experiences, perspectives, and expertise that often results in sustainable, adaptable, and inspired solutions. The alternative is solutions that don’t understand problems in all their complexity, solutions that lack the knowledge of how challenges and solutions have been approached in other contexts, or challenges narrowly perceived through a homogeneous lens. At best, a lack of diversity and inclusion represents a lack of ambition, at worst, it can lead to squandered resources and problematic interventions.

Our Jetson experience

The Innovation Service has experience of its own that speaks to the merits of diverse and inclusive project teams. Our Jetson Project team, which works to predict migration patterns based on climatic and economic datasets in Somalia, is a particularly good example. Rebeca (who is Mexican) is the technical lead and Data Scientist, Sofia (who is Albanian-Greek) is the artificial intelligence and machine learning expert. Babusi (who is Zimbabwean) takes the lead on user-experience and interface, and Hans (who is a Swedish-speaking Finnish Korean) takes a project management and strategic development role.

“We were not just looking for those with the relevant technical skill sets for the team, but for those with unique perspectives on displacement in multiple contexts, a range of educational and professional backgrounds, and a willingness to experiment and question assumptions,” Hans explained. When asked how to tell if a team is functioning inclusively or not, Hans elaborated, “You notice it especially by contrast when it’s not working, when you’re in a non-diverse team. In a diverse and inclusive team, there’s often less of a focus on hierarchy, and more of a bent towards ‘adhocracy’ – a commitment to diversity isn’t necessarily a cleaner process, but it tends to be more dynamic and rigorous, and that’s how it can foster innovation.” When discussing how Jetson may be brought to scale, it was the cognitive diversity that brought the conversation from geographical/regional scaling towards developing the nature of the product itself. Project Jetson’s experience demonstrates the positive impact that comes from having a variety of viewpoints and realities colliding in the exchange of divergent interpretations and challenged assumptions. The heightened patience and the more challenging dialogue that such an inclusive approach necessitates is the challenging process that improves outcomes and enhances creativity.

How can we facilitate inclusion?

To facilitate a diverse team, each team member must engage in a process of bias awareness. Managers and supervisors need to be aware of the range of personalities, behaviours, cultural norms, experiences, competencies, and prejudices of their colleagues, and design the team’s work processes around them. This approach ensures that the richness of diversity and the plurality of ideas do not fall between the subtle cracks of bias, chauvinism, or racism. It is also imperative that inclusion is built into the fabric of HR practices: accounting for a range of linguistic abilities, non-discrimination in interviews against those who think in ways not favoured by Western education systems, on-boarding and training that sets inclusive work cultures as a requirement. Overall, when teams get down to tackling the complexities of a challenge, there should be an atmosphere in which the composite members of the team can offer their insights and thoughts without fear that they are speaking above their station, that their accent and language level reflects their competence, and that contributions are not unfairly subject to unconscious and conscious prejudice. To be specific, an inclusive work environment relies on a combination of individuals’ skills, knowledge, and values. Observation, patience, and listening skills are necessary in tandem with cultural self-awareness, and cultural and socio-linguistic knowledge. These skill and knowledge sets need to be driven by a value-set that includes respect, open-mindedness, and tolerance. We should strive to avoid behaving and communicating along ingrained notions of authority, and we should work out what behaviours and communication styles catalyse the greatest engagement.

Diversity is a stepping stone to equality, inclusion is the step. The profitability and organisational benefits of a diverse and inclusive work culture are clear to be seen in areas of the private sector. Humanitarians should be motivated both by the successes that diversity and inclusion can bring – but also by the advancement of fairness and equality that it represents. Innovation is not always about the new, and the idea of an international workforce working harmoniously is not new to multilateral organisations such as UNHCR. It is time to take a further step. Global organisations that transcend global hierarchies to reflect the spectrum of human experience and perspectives will enrich how we understand problems, and enhance our collective intelligence as we design and implement solutions. In an era where inequalities are being challenged energetically, global institutions depend on equitable workforces for factors as rudimental as the authority of their voice.

Don’t get lost in a complicated debate. Think about how you can be more inclusive in your interactions, both personal and professional. Here are some suggestions to get you started:

How to make a team more inclusive:

1. Reflect on who contributes most and least in meetings and discussions;

2. Reflect on how your colleagues’ accents and language affects how you interpret what they say – do these same words sound more authoritative to you in a ‘native’ accent;

3. Reflect on the cultural/religious/social backgrounds of your colleagues and consider how this may influence the manner of their participation;

4. Deconstruct and challenge the nature of your team’s power dynamics and intentional and unintentional hierarchies;

5. Engage with colleagues through both private and open conversation to establish the blocks and the incentives to contribution and active participation;

6. Encourage a safe space for reflection, suggesting ideas, and pair with a constructive feedback mechanism.

This article attempts to scratch the surface of the discussion on what diversity and inclusion are to innovation, what skill and agility are to sport. A football team would struggle if all their players were strikers, or if they didn’t make use of every player on the pitch. Please help us expand this movement by submitting your stories and experiences that expand our understanding of diversity challenges, and how we overcome them.