The Social Awareness Scale – a practical tool to help navigate inclusion, diversity and beyond

People

I’m Jihan, I lead the Inclusion and Diversity team at Wise (formerly TransferWise) – one of the fastest-growing tech companies in the world, made up of 2,400 curious and highly intelligent people. So global inclusion and diversity topics have naturally sparked some feisty conversations and debate. 

When we get these conversations right, we feel empowered to generate new ideascollaboratekeep learning and make progress on our mission faster. When these conversations go wrong, we can feel shut downshamed and excluded.

I designed this tool to help us all have better conversations so we can be true advocates for underrepresented groups, build psychological safety and self-awareness of behaviour.

As someone fairly new to setting up and leading an Inclusion and Diversity team, I’ve spent the past few months listening to hundreds of people around the world. I’ve heard amazing stories of people feeling they can be their authentic selves at work and as a result, feel respected and motivated in their roles. I’ve also heard the flip side and situations where people feel excluded and different, which in an international company of people working towards an inclusive mission isn’t good enough.

I’m also seeing more and more people feel that they can’t join conversations for fear of getting something wrong. Or halting their curiosity when someone shuts them down. And I believe this is slowing our progress towards being more inclusive and diverse.

Most people are on the same page and want to make progress, but we’re really struggling to communicate with each other. 

I built a tool designed to be a starting point to help people (at all levels) build bridges, not walls when having those tricky and emotive conversations. It should also help people track their journey towards social and self-awareness and become a more inclusive and better colleague.

I hope that by understanding each other’s lived experiences, having better conversations and educating ourselves on the issues that affect both our colleagues and customers around the world, we can better celebrate our differences and come together to make our mission a reality.

Ok, so what’s the goal of this tool? 

This tool is for everyone, regardless of how aware you are of issues impacting underrepresented groups.

If you’re a leader and you’ve never heard of the term microaggression* – how do you get clued up? If you’re only learning for the first time about Black struggles – what’s the best way to start learning? If you know lots about an issue and you decide it’s someone else’s job to do something about it – is that ok?

The aim of this tool is to help people to:

  • Have more empathetic, psychologically safe and productive conversations
  • Build self-awareness of behaviour
  • Be advocates for underrepresented groups

Note*: a microaggression is a remark, action, question, joke or incident that results in an indirect, subtle, or unintentional discrimination against members of an underreprestented group. Often said casually, microaggressions are painful because these groups already face discrimination or stereotypes. An example is saying: ‘Your name is so hard to pronounce’, ‘where are you actually from?’ or describing your female lead as ‘crazy’. These examples point out that something is unfamiliar or foreign to you and play to negative historical stereotypes. You can read more about microaggressions here.

How to use the Social Awareness Scale tool 

This tool is designed to chart someone’s journey through awareness and into advocacy for a diversity and inclusion/political/societal area or underrepresented group.

Where you sit on this scale will vary by topic, but it also varies by region. You might know how to be an advocate for issues around gender identity in the UK, but are more unaware of issues in other regions, for example, in APAC.

There are common behaviours within each stage of the scale and the tool is designed to provide a clear path to progress.

For each stage, you’ll find common behaviours and how to tell if you’re at this stage on a specific topic (where you sit on the scale will vary by topic and region). There are also tips for moving up the scale towards advocacy.

It’s worth noting that getting to the stage of advocacy is not an endpoint. The work is never done. There’s always more we can learn and do. But if more of us are on the journey towards it, we’ll make our workplaces more inclusive.

How does this scale inform inclusion strategy? 

If we only aim our inclusion and diversity work at those who are already at Ally or Advocate stage, we’re going to miss out on taking a huge amount of our people on a journey to learning, social awareness and inclusion. We need to assume most people come from the unaware end of the scale.

At Wise, for example, one of our goals in 2021 is to get everyone at the curious level when it comes to I&D conversations. We firstly want to build trust, engagement and understanding. As more people move out of the unaware stage, we’ll build deeper programmes and actions.

So, what does each stage mean and how can we move up?

This is the extreme end of the scale and not what our people stand for at Wise. Our Code of Conduct highlights the principles that apply to each and every one of us. We set the bar high for the work we do and the way we behave.

But, we should be aware of falling into some of these behaviour traps when it comes to conflict and debate.

Not listening can be divided into negative behaviours at both ends of the awareness scale.

Bigoted behaviour:

  • Unwilling to listen and learn
  • Prejudiced and antagonistic
  • Have no plans to change
  • Shaming behaviour:
  • Speaks on behalf of others
  • Invalidates and shames unaware and clumsy behaviour
  • Creates more conflict than resolution and learning

  • You find yourself switching off and shutting down when you see a focus on a specific issue or underrepresented groups; instead of seeking to find out more and ask questions, you turn inwards
  • You’re not willing to overcome prejudices and conscious or unconscious biases you carry
  • You find yourself getting angry when you see people getting it wrong and publicly call this out in a way that shames behaviour that stems from unawareness
  • You rush to jump in to speak on behalf of an underrepresented group without checking how they feel about situations first
  • You forget the privilege that comes with your education and socio-economic background and how this impacts your awareness level in relation to others
  • You have the words to call people out, but would rather shut someone down (sometimes publicly) than talk about the issue offline in a safe space
  • You reject compromise – not giving in to others viewpoints or considering their lived experiences

These behaviours are in conflict with a company’s values and in some cases their Code of Conduct, so in the rare cases you see this behaviour happening, there may be a more serious issue to discuss.

However, if you recognise some of these behaviours in yourself, even if mild:

  • Try and direct-message or have a call with the person you see displaying unaware or clumsy behaviour. If you feel uncomfortable doing this, speak to a member of your People team who can help you navigate your approach
  • Check-in with your colleagues from underrepresented groups and allow them the space to share how they feel about a situation; by listening first you can show support and take action as an Ally or Advocate
  • Understand that you will be called out for offensive behaviour ● Understand that it’s not ok to make people feel excluded or othered*.
  • Note*othering is a term that’s used to describe how people can (often unintentionally) be made to feel different through subtle jokes and comments. For example, referring to someone as a female Software Engineer, rather than just a Software Engineer. You can read more about the concept of othering here
  • Whilst standing firm on your morals is commendable, be sure to listen and at least try to engage with the person you disagree with, ask them why they felt this was an ok thing to say, in a safe, private space between the two of you – you’re likely to make more progress furthering a cause this way

This is less of a stage and more a state, where most people initially are. No one can know everything about all issues, experiences, stereotypes or oppressions underrepresented groups people face.

BUT, if something affects any Wiser, it affects all of us. 

As an internationally-minded company of people without borders, everything that we stand for means that we owe it to each other to move out of unaware, quickly. We’re curious and don’t want to stay at the unaware end of the scale.

  • You’ve heard of ‘Black Lives Matter’ but assume it’s simply something used to describe protests happening in another part of the world and this doesn’t impact you
  • You have literally no concept of what issues of racism are happening in parts of the world where the conversation isn’t so obvious or openly discussed
  • You know we have lots of colleagues from ex-Soviet countries, you know the history, but you’ve never spoken to someone face-to-face about the cultural impact that’s still felt
  • You’re hearing concepts like ‘othering’ and ‘intersectionality’ for the first time
  • You’re not sure what the Q+ in LGBTQ+ stands for
  • You’re unsure what the difference between gender, or gender identity means, you’ve never even heard about gender dysphoria
  • You have no idea where to start when it comes to considering a colleague or candidate with a disability
  • You’re wondering what the difference between inclusion and diversity is This list could go on!

  • If you don’t know what day-to-day life experiences are like for a specific person or group, the first step is to listen
  • The next step is to start educating yourself -Google a term or topic, ask questions and be prepared for the answers to surprise you
  • Acknowledge that you will have assumptions, generalisations and bias because we all grow up learning these things and we have to actively unlearn them
  • Thinking that you can automatically identify with someone’s life experience can be unrealistic and naive, even if you’re also from an underrepresented or similar background, your lived experience might be totally different to someone else’s. So always approach speaking to someone like you’re learning something new
  • If you’re a lead in particular, make sure your team is open, friendly and empathetic, so that if people do want to share experiences and ask questions, they know it’s a safe space to be themselves, even if you aren’t aware of what they are going through
  • If you’re a senior leader and you don’t know where to start, why not try reverse mentoring with someone? Create an open and trusting relationship where you can explore topics and make mistakes in a safe space

You know the basic concepts of inclusion and diversity, but you’re not active on behalf of yourself or others.

We’re now more aware than ever that we need to go further to build a truly diverse and inclusive place to work. So what good is knowledge if we do nothing with it?

If you’re aware you’re living in an unequal and inequitable environment, nothing will change unless we individually take action. In fact, it could be said that to be passive is to agree that the status quo is ok and could be making things worse.

  • You know someone from an underrepresented demographic who has broken through ceilings and appears to be thriving, so you assume it’s absolutely possible for others to easily do the same and the problem is solved
  • You acknowledge diversity is important but don’t feel it’s a priority over meeting your hiring targets at speed
  • You feel these things are someone else’s problem to solve (e.g. the People team)
  • You avoid situations and conversations that are uncomfortable
  • You’re fearful of being vulnerable, admit you don’t know where to start, and you’re scared of saying the wrong thing
  • You’ve worked hard to champion yourself as an underrepresented person and feel that your work is done

  • Understand that you’re in a position to positively influence situations and people around you. To truly live our values, you have a duty to listen to and amplify the voices of those less privileged than you
  • Change requires all of us to take action, even if it’s a small gesture (e.g. encouraging someone not to speak over someone else in a meeting)
  • Understand that as individuals we can all help make workplaces more inclusive and diverse – for more voices to be heard, we need less people to conform to the status quo and instead be prepared to have uncomfortable conversations that start with self-reflection
  • If you’re from an underrepresented group and you’re not comfortable putting yourself out there as a spokesperson, advocate or example of someone from a specific group that faced struggles or has figured out how to make it work, take some time to look behind you at who might not have got there yet and think about what you can do to inspire them.
  • Consider intersectionality* when thinking about those less privileged than yourself. For example, you’re a white woman in tech, you’re underrepresented and you battle this every day. You’re exhausted having to do the work for others, but behind you, there might be a woman who faces even harder struggles – without all of us playing a role, progress will be slow

Note*: intersectionality is the theory that the overlap of various social identities, as race, gender, sexuality, and class, contributes to the specific type of systemic oppression and discrimination experienced by an individual. Read more about intersectionality here.

This is an exciting stage and one where we can either make lots of progress or take steps backwards.

Curious people have moved beyond simply listening and learning and have started to engage in the conversation, perhaps even taking tentative steps towards action as an Ally.

Still relatively quiet, it’s a stage where your intentions are good, but you’re prone to mistakes and clumsy behaviour. Whereby, you’re aware of a topic and try to join the conversation, but you lack a deep understanding of the issue. This can sometimes lead to misunderstandings or making other people feel excluded.

By carefully navigating this stage, you can become an Ally to people from oppressed groups.

  • You might attend an educational session or read an article on a topic of interest
  • You listen and absorb, but you’re not sure what to do next
  • You ask questions, but you’re not quite sure if what you’re asking is ok
  • You might be casual and unassuming in your comments or actions and exhibit what can be called microaggressions.
  • You discover that some of the things you say are unintentionally hurtful to others

  • Be aware of your biases
  • Don’t expect to be taught or shown how to become an Ally. When people share their experiences, listen, but don’t expect them to do all the work to tell you about the oppressions they face. If you’re unsure Google it and try read a range of sources
  • Learn about the definitions, words and data that explain how experiences differ for different groups of people
  • Don’t assume that every member of a community feels oppressed and recognise difference. Not everyone from an underrepresented group feels discriminated against about the same thing. Listen to how people individually talk about their identity and experiences
  • Don’t participate in “comparison arguments” (your struggle is “just as important as”)
  • Understand that you’re going to stumble and say things wrong and at times may need to openly correct yourself as you explore a topic
  • Learn how to listen and accept criticism with grace, even if it’s uncomfortable

An Ally is someone who understands and wants to support people whose lives are affected daily by systemic oppression. They seek to understand and champion causes when asked or promoted.

Allies recognise that even though they’re not a member of the oppressed communities they support, they make a concerted effort to understand others struggles better.

Allies are powerful voices alongside oppressed ones, and being an Ally can happen in public or through small private actions.

  • You consistently check your own bias and understand why you’re doing so
  • You’re prepared to have difficult conversations with colleagues when things are said that make people feel uncomfortable – even when you feel scared to do so
  • You use your privilege for those who lack it
  • You acknowledge that very often the conversation is not about you
  • You’re willing to own your mistakes, whether it’s feedback about you or hearing information that challenges your perspective
  • You understand that your education is up to you and no one else

  • There’s a fine balance between speaking on behalf of an underrepresented group and overly relying on them to answer all the questions and do all the work. If you’re hesitating about whether it’s your place to speak or act on a topic, build trust and relationships first and then feel empowered to take action
  • Try to avoid oversimplified language and consider intersectionality. For example, a programme for example that speaks to women should also speak to those who identify as trans or non-binary*
  • Put yourself out there day-in-day-out, show up for people and be committed
  • Be patient to be included in safe spaces and conversations
  • Recognise the value in the work that you’re doing, even if it isn’t recognised by everyone else (yet)
  • As a leader, if you have visibility, you have a platform to make change, share your knowledge and talk about your own intersectionality. It’s not about equating your struggles with others, but we do all have a diversity story
  • Look to mentor people and share your knowledge to help others become Allies too

*NoteNon-binary is one term people use to describe genders that don’t fall into one of these two categories, male or female. Some people don’t identify with any gender. Some people’s gender changes over time. Read more about how to be respectful and supportive here.

Advocates are well-informed, committed and routinely and proactively champion inclusion and diversity. They don’t wait to be asked.

This stage is what we call #inclusiongoals, although it should never be seen as a destination. There’s always more we can learn. There’s always more action we can take.

It will always be impossible to be an advocate for everyone, but by picking even just one cause, and working your hardest to support it through action, we’ll make huge strides towards change and progress.

  • You use your platform and whatever power you have to keep topics front of mind and give a voice to those who don’t have it
  • You do your homework and follow through on what you say you’re going to do
  • You challenge ideas and norms, regularly having difficult conversations to make sure every Wiser can thrive
  • You’re not afraid to ask difficult or uncomfortable conversations
  • You’re humble, and you don’t seek personal recognition for what you do
  • You do as well as say, putting in the hard work, to lift up oppressed communities
  • You realise that the more you know, the more you don’t know – you make sure your knowledge and learning is constantly being refreshed
  • You create safe spaces for others to move up the scale with no judgement

  • Commit to taking others on their own journey of social awareness and towards advocacy (this can be particularly powerful at lead and leadership level)
  • If you’re a leader and you have the platform and access to resources and tools that can go beyond individual support, look at some of the more structural or institutional challenges that need to be overcome to level the playing field and see what you can do to help.
  • Look around you and see who could use your advocacy to broaden inclusion and diversity conversations
  • When it comes to your product, champion accessibility and inclusion so that it works for everyone and we leave no one behind

Disclaimer: 

This blog was born out of the multitude of conversations I’ve been involved in over the past few months. My ideas have been formed through many conversations with peers, mentors and my wider network plus many, many people from all regions and backgrounds. I’ve also taken inspiration from Jennifer Brown’s Ally Continuum when doing a retrospective search on whether something like this already exists and thinking about this with a Wise lens – it’s worth a read and listen.

Glossary: 

Intersectionality: intersectionality is the theory that the overlap of various social identities, such as race, gender, sexuality, and class, contributes to the specific type of systemic oppression and discrimination experienced by an individual. Read more about intersectionality here.

Microaggression: a microaggression is a remark, action, question, joke or incident that results in an indirect, subtle, or unintentional discrimination against members of an underrepresented group. Often said casually, microaggressions are painful because these groups already face discrimination or stereotypes. An example is saying: ‘Your name is so hard to pronounce’, ‘where are you actually from?’ or describing your female lead as ‘crazy’. These examples point out that something is unfamiliar or foreign to you and play to negative historical stereotypes. You can read more about microaggressions here.

Non-binary: Non-binary is one term people use to describe genders that don’t fall into one of these two categories, male or female. Some people don’t identify with any gender. Some people’s gender changes over time. Read more about how to be respectful and supportive here.

Othering: othering is a term that’s used to describe how people can (often unintentionally) be made to feel different through subtle jokes and comments. For example, referring to someone as a female Software Engineer, rather than just a Software Engineer. You can read more about the concept here.