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  • Selina Kotecha

Why are we so obsessed with representation?

Updated: Mar 28

The appointment of Vaughan Gething as the First Minister of Wales means that for the first time in history, three of the Great British nations are fronted by visibly ‘diverse’ leaders. With Northern Ireland’s administration being jointly led by two women, this means that currently there are no White men representing the top political positions across Great Britain. 

Up until very recently we also had an openly gay Prime Minister of Indian heritage governing Ireland. This is quite a big deal, right? Well, it should be - but if we asked minority communities whether they feel adequately represented and included by the leadership of their nation I sense that there i a lot to be desired. 

This begs the question: just how important is visible representation? Over the last few years, many organisations have set goals for their leadership teams and boards in a bid for more diversity, but we need to look deeper into whether this helps others from minority communities to feel included. After all, one or two people from any background do not represent the values and ideas of an entire community. 

So, is there really any truth in the phrase “if you can see it you can be it?” 

What role does representation play in DEI? 

Research shows that representation can help reduce negative stereotypes about minority communities. In fact, real-life and media representation of people taking part in activities that challenge their racial or other stereotypes can change children’s belief in their abilities whilst also making adults less prejudiced. 

A couple of years ago the hashtag “FirstTimeISawMe” was trending on social media, with people sharing personal stories of when people felt personally represented on screen. Interestingly, the examples that people gave were rarely about specific characteristics such as race, gender, disability or sexuality alone. it was always more complex and nuanced with aspects such as class and regionality having an influence too. 

As Speakeasier guest Marcus Ryder suggests “representation is not just skin deep” and identity is multilayered. By pigeon-holing people and leaders into characteristic boxes we may be missing the point of DEI, specifically the ‘I’, which stands for inclusion. 

This is what we are seeing in politics, although there is ethnic representation the connectedness we feel to the leaders is short-lived unless there is something else in their behaviour and the way that they lead that resonates with us. Ultimately, it comes down to the systems and values they represent which is determined by the party and members they are serving. 

What about inclusion? 

Inclusion is the more complex component of DEI, it’s the thing that lurks underneath that people don’t always understand or tend to skirt over because it’s too arduous to get involved. In his articles for Forbes, Paulo Gaudiano has regularly pointed out the lack of clarity, conciseness and consistency when it comes to defining inclusion.  

This is why for many years organisations have focused primarily on the D, as diversity is assumed to be something that can be visible and measured (not all diversity is visible so this plan is flawed from the very start!), so we can tick it off our to-do lists and get on with all the other things we are meant to do. 

Needless to say, this hasn’t worked. We have often found ourselves hiring a woman from a minority ethnic background and expecting her to “fit” into our White male leadership team and then wondering why we cannot hold onto “diverse hires.” Witnessing Leo Varadkar’s sudden resignation this week has made me think about his experience as Prime Minister. Some have speculated that exhaustion and burnout are at the root of his departure. We often overlook the extra load for “diverse hires” who have to engage in an array of tactics to survive including code-switching and assimilation, all while being judged by heritage communities. The result can be a diluted version of themselves lacking in authenticity,  this also sends a message to the rest of the organisation that the same norms have to be adhered to for success around here. 

So how do we measure inclusion?

And that's what inclusion is, it’s the everyday experience that people are having, the culture and norms that you have set as an organisation, the unwritten rules of operation. This influences engagement, representation and ultimately business performance. 

We need to get smarter about identifying where our underlying issues are to establish a baseline and measure progress. This requires us to get smarter about understanding inclusion, luckily some frameworks can help to provide this clarity. At The Unmistakables we have combined our years of experience working with clients in DE&I with research and data as well as behavioural science to develop the inside-out inclusion measurement model. We’ve made it possible for you to assess where you are as an organisation using this free tool.


So, it’s time to stop focusing on outcomes and look inward to genuinely affect change that will not only lead to representation but also inclusion and holding onto diversity. 


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