Learning to advocate, and self-advocate, in a world full of noise.
When I graduated from University in the summer of 1999, my very middle-class roommate told me that now I had a University degree, I was no longer working class. I turned to her and said, “I will always be working class”. At the same University, my older boyfriend told me that I should lose my Essex accent if I ever wanted to get a good job. On graduation, I was 23 years old and already 2 years behind my peers. Class is not straightforward to define in the UK. On household income alone, I earn less than £47,000 per annum, which was the average middle-class income in the UK in 2011. In the UK, a child is two-and-a-half times as likely to have a managerial job if their grandparents were of a higher class. On a personal level, it is about identity, community, ethics, beliefs, values, family background, education, access to healthcare, among other things.
I was thirty years old when I got diagnosed with Dyslexia and Meares Irlen Syndrome. I was being singled out at work and made the subject of disparaging comments. I suppose you would call it bullying by my manager while on an extended period of temporary promotion that lasted 2 years (I kept being turned down for promotion to the same role). I thought it was unlikely I had Dyslexia but felt the need to demonstrate I had a protected characteristic, to receive protection from bullying. My Dyslexia was diagnosed, and it was suggested I had Dyspraxia too. Once I had received my diagnosis and gave the full report with recommendations to my manager, he stormed off loudly saying that “this has snowballed”. That was the extent of the empathy I experienced. The organisation belonged to the civil service so had no choice but to action every recommendation in the report. It was hard on me to start with but eventually, everyone did back off. I stayed for a further 8-years, suffering various other indignities, before transferring to a ministerial department in London.
In 2017, I was working as a Policy Advisor in London for a ministerial department. One day I sat with a colleague listening to the Permanent Secretary dismiss my colleague and my questions about what the organisation was doing to increase diversity. He explicitly stated that he wanted to focus on diversity of thought and avoid groupthink. What did he mean by “groupthink”? In this context, most likely that by encouraging representation from diverse groups in his organisation, he was encouraging groupthink — An ineffective decision-making process, motivated by a desire to reach a consensus irrespective of critical thought. Clearly, his interpretation of the importance of diversity was flawed, but he was leading a ministerial department, which made that very worrying. What is diversity of thought? Not everyone thinks the same way or shares a perspective. This is often the case with individuals who have neurodivergent conditions, e.g., Autism, ADHD, Dyslexia, among others. Ironically, achieving diversity of thought is much easier if you look towards creating an inclusive environment, particularly when neurodiversity is actively encouraged.
In 2018, I was working as a Policy Advisor in London for another ministerial department. One day after work while standing around in a crowded pub, a female colleague pointed to a male colleague and said to me “What are you going to do about that?” The man she was pointing at was younger, Harrow-educated, with a double-barrelled surname. She said, “People like you do all the work, but it is people like that who get promoted.” She was right because within a year I had resigned. My new line manager had been in post less than 2 months when he extended my probation and gave me a development plan, despite me being awarded a bonus for my all-around good work ethic three months prior to his arrival. I was not willing to be delivered this news with no indication there had been an issue, by a man who could not even be bothered to lift his gaze from my breasts and have it with my face. When I spoke to more senior colleagues, they told me to do what I had been advised by my manager, to try “being less you, and more them”, whatever that meant. Disgusted, I resigned with no job to go to. What happened to the colleague who imparted her pearls of wisdom to me down the pub that day? My emails went unanswered after I left. So much for the sisterhood.
This tells you a lot about me, particularly my experiences of being a working-class woman with dyslexia, trying to earn a living. It tells you that I have left jobs rather than advocate for myself, or others have let me down by not advocating for me. In any event, my chances of social mobility, whether I wanted to transcend my working-class status or not, were drastically reduced due to discrimination in the workplace. It means I have had to start again in an incredibly competitive labour market, not once, but three times. What have I learned from these experiences about self-advocacy and advocating for others in the workplace?
Organisations are often too busy looking in the same direction, and it is often away from the talent that can drive their business forward. Policies for recruitment, promotion/progression, personal development, and even anti-bullying and anti-harassment policies (often called dignity and respect in the workplace policies in the UK) are often discriminatory. I applied for promotion with a diagnosis of Dyslexia, and I was still expected to sit online selection tests that had a visible countdown timer on each individual question, I just got extra time to stare at the timer while failing the tests. I told the Chief Executive, also Dyslexic, she did nothing.
Don’t be afraid to advocate for another person. Individuals can be good citizens. You can’t speak for a person but there are always circumstances where you can be the change. I recently resigned from another job due to bullying. It was not specific to a protected characteristic and was just bad luck this time. I ended up staying because someone more senior insisted they wanted to help make my working environment better so I felt I could stay. This meant I had to be honest about what I was going through and was unable to just walk away, which had become my default position. As a result, I received a promotion just over a month after I withdrew my resignation. In previous roles, the organisation has had a 360-degree feedback system where I could search for colleagues and add comments for their annual appraisals. Before leaving one of the roles, I mentioned above, I did that for four colleagues who I felt had been supportive of me in my role there.
You don’t have to be perfect; you just have to be open to other people’s experiences, without making it about you. I don’t expect people to bend over backward to accommodate my Dyslexia but if I am tired and finding reading dense text on a white background difficult and it is not a time-sensitive piece of work, I want to be able to have the autonomy to complete one of my other tasks instead, returning to it when I am less tired.
Allow people to be authentic at work. That does not mean you should permit people to smoke at their desks while ogling porn, but it does mean rethinking your idea of what the perfect candidate and employee are. Do you want them to have a specific skill because you don’t have the time to train them? Can they acquire this skill with relative ease based on their background? Are you asking things of candidates or employees because you don’t have time to invest in developing them, or because it is essential to the role? How much does a perfect interview performance matter? Are you more inclined to send Johnny out to meet clients because he is “a bit posh” while overlooking the hard worker in your team who can probably network just as well, given the opportunity?
Learn how to advocate for yourself. In some of the examples from my own experiences above, I did fight. I consulted the Union, I requested an occupational health assessment, I spoke to the Chief Executive. It made no difference. In those instances, deciding the culture of those organisations did not fit with what I needed to feel safe in the workplace, and finding something else was most likely the right choice, but it is never the only choice. Choosing to fight or choosing to start again is a very personal decision but there are other ways you can fight. You can take those experiences into new organisations and do everything you can to ensure you are heard on the issues that are important to you. You can ensure that others are given the opportunity to feel heard, too. A shocking number of managers I have worked for genuinely believed bad experiences toughened you up and were a rite of passage. It is not right that you should make other people suffer because you have suffered. The opposite is true.