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diversity and inclusion

Have you ever thought about your childhood experience, and how this experience impacts your thoughts and perceptions of diversity and inclusion today?

This weekend I visited the awesome Arcade Club in Bury, where I time-travelled back to my youth to play Pac-Man, Golden Axe, OutRun, Mortal Kombat, Arachnoid, Gauntlet and many other games my fortysomething brain had only been able to reminisce about in recent years.

As a psychologist, I couldn’t help analysing the messages these games were sending as I laughed and joked with my partner.

For example:

1) scantily-dressed women in OutRun who had a small repertoire of compliments for the male driver (no female or gender neutral options here)

2) the fighting games which had a high proportion of pale-skinned good guys, versus dark-skinned bad guys

3) the general focus on men fighting, with the odd female bystander occasionally added for some variety or as a small character in part of a team

4) magic, strength, agility and speed were the only competencies required for the characters locked in this treasure trove of arcade machines from the 1980s

And it got me thinking, how often do we think about the messages we received when we were young?  

A human brain operates on a conscious, subconscious and unconscious level all the time. We digest food without thinking about it. We make judgements based on past experiences. In fact, everyone’s behaviour can be based on thoughts which may or may not be true.

Our brains receive over 11 million bits of information per second, yet we only have the capacity to consciously process 40-50 bits of information, meaning our subconscious mind picks up almost 11 million bits of information we have no recollection of.

MIodinow, 2012

Even if we try to think about what we are missing, we can’t possibly – just as if we try to think about how we digest things, we can’t. But that doesn’t mean we can’t observe, learn and improve the processes. It is a fact that culture influences how we see the world and the decisions we make, so why don’t we talk about it more and listen to understand others?

Culture influences how we see the world, especially in terms of diversity and inclusion.  

During my childhood, I repeatedly received the following messages which I am conscious of.

Think about it.

Even Ken, who was with Barbie, at the time, was very different to G.I. Joe. In fact, despite being the same sort of toy and very similar, his physique and character were very different because he was aimed at a different audience.

This translated into men should be fit, strong and look after the woman whilst women should be skinny, attractive and support the men. This message came across in music, movies, TV programmes and even on breakfast cereal (remember the Mr T cereal?!?). Have a think about the movies, music, TV or radio programmes that you grew up with. What messages did they send to you? What stories did they communicate to you? I dare you to google a few and watch them to see what you notice.  

Reflect on the past to change the future of inclusion.

You see, this is where our unconscious biases come into play. There is a huge gap between the 11 million unconscious bits of information we receive and draw conclusions from, often forming stereotypes, compared to the few micro bits of information we may consciously process, albeit often automatically.  

But challenge your memories about diversity.

I remember going into school after Christmas one year, extremely excited that I had got a transformer (despite my parents frequently asking are you sure you want one?). But, everyone laughed at me.

Many girls had their new Barbie dream houses, others had a Cindy doll (you seemed to have allegiance to one or the other as far as I recall). I remember a friend saying: “You can’t have a Barbie and a Cindy as they aren’t friends. You get one or the other”.

Even that one statement “everyone laughing at me” is an unhelpful thought as, in reality, it was only two people. I even remember their names, but because of how uncomfortable I felt at the time, I have over-generalised this experience for years. Because this is what it felt like to my young brain – I shouldn’t be playing with transformers as I wasn’t a boy. I felt embarrassed that I hadn’t lived up to people’s expectations.   

The reason for this story is in 2024 children are growing up with very different messages about diversity and inclusion.

Today, thankfully, gender neutrality is common, but by no means perfect, and gone are the scantily-clad passenger women in arcade cars whilst the men take charge. Since those messages, I have travelled the world, and learnt and experienced many things but I still have many biases in my thinking because WE ALL DO. I can never understand what it is for a black person to experience the challenges they may have faced, or be someone who has to “come out”. But working with people who have lived experiences such as these make me realise the importance of our childhood experiences, and the subsequent stories we tell ourselves.

We must all listen to others, and seek to understand diversity and inclusion.

The only thing we can all do is listen to others (and I mean really listen, seeking to understand), learn, and keep learning, to ensure we improve our diversity intelligence (Anderson, 2021 ) and continue to make the world a more inclusive place for everyone.  

Think Organisation is founded on the premise that work is all about people. Every person thinks differently. Fact. Empowering individuals, bringing diverse teams together, and ensuring organisational cultures are inclusive is what we do, repeatedly, with a wide variety of clients. We do this using our extensive practical experience of human behaviour, underpinned by decades of scientific research.

So, bring on Pac-Woman, Pac-Person and every other individual who wants to join the pack of inclusion.

Think Performance. Think Excellence. Think Impact.  

Adapted from an article originally published on LinkedIn, March 2nd, 2023.

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