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June 13, 2012

The Diversity and Inclusion Exercise

I am spending time this year at work going through a series of Diversity and Inclusion workshops. It has been interesting to learn some things about myself and the way I view the world vs. the way others view the world. We had to do a "Discovering Diversity Profile" at the beginning which was interesting.  

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During the last seminar we attended, we did a "break out" exercise.  we were placed into three groups of three people each.  My group was made up of a middle-aged, white male dressed in a suit (I'll call him "Suit"), a mid-to-late range age white female (I'll call her "co-worker"), and me. Our facilitator assigned a personality for whom we would list Descriptors and then Thoughts/Feelings.  Our group was assigned "mother of young children".  My awareness was heightened almost immediately.

I want to address mainly what happened in  my group.  But what happened in my group was similar to what happened in the other two groups.  

I had elected to be recorder and write our words on the flip chart.  As such, my teammates were quick to start and I didn't have a lot of time to actually contribute.  As we began coming up with descriptors for "mother of young children" I had to keep reminding Suit that our leader had said "mother of young children" and not "young mother of children."  He seemed to have a hard time keeping it straight...but as the exercise went on, I realized that it told me a lot about his worldview.  The two of them were eager to participate and I hardly got a chance to get a word in.  When I did get a word in, it was never the right one.  Honestly, I was flabbergasted at what they were coming up with to describe a "mother of young children"

Here are some of the descriptors my teammates came up with:

  • unorganized
  • disheveled
  • frazzled
  • always rushed
  • poorly dressed
  • physically out of shape
  • young (Suit refused to let it go.  Apparently if you have young children you must be young.  I am a mother of young children...I am not what we consider young, anymore.)
  • frown/furrowed brow
  • poor
  • dependent
Here were some of the thoughts/feelings of a mother of young children that my group came up with:
  • unhappy
  • insecure
  • tired
  • unfulfilled
...no.  I am not kidding.  It was strange, I kept saying, "You do realize you are describing someone like me." But it made no difference - especially to Suit.  He seemed to think that all "mothers of young children" were stay-at-home moms, that they were economically disadvantaged because of this and there was some question as to the level of education she had.  I said at one point..."if so many moms are stay-at-home moms, then why is there a huge daycare industry?"  He just kind of looked at me like I didn't know what I was talking about and didn't answer.

The point of the exercise was to show that the more descriptive we are of people at the outset of our interactions with them, the more negative we tend to be about them.  Our facilitator could have simply given us "mother" and it most likely would have led to far different results.  Additionally...Lord only knows what might have been on our flip chart paper if she had given us "African American single mother of young children."  As a Catholic wife and mother, I know all too well the assumptions made about me as soon as I mention that I am Catholic and that I have five children.  Wow...wonder what Suit would have said about that!

Obviously, the point was made without getting all that descriptive - which is a bit unsettling about us humans and the way our brains work.

I found it interesting the laughter that accompanied the wider group discussion of my sub-group's descriptors.  Everyone seemed to think it was funny that our group called a mother of young children disorganized and poor, making the assumption she didn't work outside the home and that she MUST be young.  Perhaps some of it was awkward laughter, but no one vehemently disagreed with it except for me.  And most likely I guess that is because I am still in the throes of mother-of-young-children-hood.

Our facilitator said what came out of our group is in line with what many people in our industry believe.  She said that it is kind of ridiculous though because 51% of the workforce at our company are women and she said that "almost 97%" of those are mothers. A somewhat high percentage (though she didn't give it to us) are mothers of young children currently.  Even so, if they were mothers at all, at some point they were mothers of young children and they probably worked during that time.

Suit seemed to be oblivious to the fact the women he works with are mothers, possibly of young children, or perhaps he doesn't work with women at all.  I wanted to ask him..."Are you married?  Do you have children?"  But perhaps he is married and perhaps his wife stayed home with the children, and perhaps they were poorer than he'd like because of that, so that has framed his ideas.  Kind of like the fact that I work outside the home, I am part of a double-income household with young children, therefore my assumption is that I am an example of what a mother of young children looks like.  I've been a mother of young children for 11 years now, and I would imagine, I could be described in any number of ways at any given point in that time.  I think what disturbed me most was how hard it was for the group to come up with positive descriptors.  

The exercise was flipped after we had group discussion and our group was to do descriptors and thoughts/feelings of a father of young children.  Maybe it was because we'd just had discussion and the point of the exercise had been made, but the descriptors of father of young children were much more positive.  Suit threw in "Spiritual Leader of the family" as a descriptor.  The words Strong and Reliable made the list, too.  

My experience could have led me to list words like "abandonment" and "remarried", though that would have gotten a bit more personal than I wanted for a workplace seminar.

When discussion turned to how we could think of all these positive things now, he mentioned that he thought people originally seemed to take the exercise too "personally" (finger pointing at me, right?) and the descriptors he had mentioned when discussing the mother of young children weren't aimed at anyone in particular.  I simply said, "But I think that's the point, isn't it?  That even though you weren't aiming, you were shooting, and the people you interact with everyday could be the very same that you just made assumptions about."

I have thought about this exercise a lot.  I thought about the fact that Suit, who by all appearances, fits into the mold of middle-aged white male, thinks that mothers of young children are poor, unorganized, disheveled, dependent, poor women.  It just really struck me that a man like that really exists.  I simply don't come across men like that on a regular basis on a personal level.  And maybe it was good that I was forced into this interaction so that I had an experience that struck this chord with me so I can be more aware of how my own assumptions might cause me to view others.

I suppose that it surprises me that in 2012, when women are at least half of the workforce, that we have to get past something as stupid as appearing disorganized because we are toting a few kids behind us on Saturday.  Women everywhere are actually so organized that they balance a full-time job, multiple kids extracurricular activities, church commitments, their husband's schedules, exercising, school schedules and even manage to squeeze in some exercise and maybe manage a decent prayer life.

Now when relaying information, though, I am very conscious of my presentation.  I consciously try to use the least amount of descriptors.  When communicating, I feel myself tending toward the bare minimum so that the people can stick to the facts at hand and not cloud their brains with details that don't matter. 

Feel free to share your thoughts on the exercises and whether this blog post made you more aware.  What are your experiences with things like this?



  1. This is so interesting. Thanks for sharing how the exercise worked, I really wish more people were able to think about how the descriptors put people into smaller and smaller boxes based on one's experience. I think the tendency to label people has a lot to do with our wanting to justify however we happen to feel about that person or group of people.

  2. Oh, I don't have time for a real comment and am scared that I may never comment so I will just leave this link

    Disturbing, no?

  3. Woah. I could not BELIEVE the descriptors coming up! I know people that do this very quickly (me included). They have all sorts of labels and things they associate with those labels. I had thoughts come to mind immediately, but not those. Lots of food for thought. Thanks for sharing!

  4. Unfortunately, the outcomes of your post ring true with my experiences. I am the African-American mom of young children you mentioned. I also am in a senior management position in HR and have conducted diversity training over the last 10 years. I only raise this to make the point that yes, I am organized.

    While we've come a long way as a nation, there are many assumptions and stereotypes that still exist. I applaud you for your courage and fortitude. Blessings to you and your family!

  5. I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don't know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often. Working together


Thank you for reading. I enjoy reading other perspectives, please feel free to share yours. :)