Why we cannot wait for the social enterprise sector to become diverse
19 November 2020 at 7:30 am
This year’s Social Enterprise Day aims to highlight the diversity across the social enterprise sector. Here, Weh Yeoh, CEO and co-founder of social enterprise Umbo, shares what diversity means to him and why social enterprises in Australia need to make diversity a priority – now.
Social enterprise is a relatively new way of helping marginalised people. But it’s only effective if it creates true systemic change, which is only possible with the right people at the decision making table. In order to achieve this, we need to truly embrace diversity.
Diversity is a buzzword at the moment, and so much effort has been put into growing diversity at all levels of society. In the middle of Black Lives Matter and George Floyd, it feels like there’s a real shift towards embracing diversity as more than just a tick box exercise.
I can personally say – and I would be surprised if other people who have felt racial marginalisation would differ – that the police brutality inflicted on George Floyd, and the worldwide indignation, was something that I felt internally. It called at something burning which had been suppressed for decades.
Part of that suppression is the feeling of being excluded. From being kept out of positions where decisions are made.
The problem with racism and exclusion in Australia is that it is like an invisible force field. You’re not 100 per cent sure that it’s there, you can’t often see or point to it, but you’re pretty sure that it’s preventing you from getting to where you want to go.
There are, of course, very tangible examples of the lack of diversity in the social enterprise sector. Some borderline on the comical.
One I experienced was a pitch night for a well-known accelerator in Sydney. Roughly 75 per cent of people pitching were people of colour. There were four judges, all of whom were white. At the end of the night there were three winners, all of whom were white.
One startup idea which got passed over was helping de-identify job applicants to racial bias in recruitment. Without lived experience of this bias, it’s understandable that judges wouldn’t validate it.
Another example is a law firm who was recruiting for a social impact position, where I emailed to enquire about a role three times in two weeks without a reply. Frustrated at not hearing back, I recalled an ANU study which found that people with Chinese names had to apply for 68 per cent more jobs to get an interview.
I wrote the exact same email with the same subject header, using a false email account and signed off as “Will Yates”. My email was passed through three sets of hands and replied to in 24 minutes.
There’s no doubt that, having experiences like this, I’m more likely to be sensitive to racial marginalisation. But the point is, when it comes to diversity, it’s not purely about cultural diversity either.
Discussions around diversity in Australia seem to focus heavily on gender. Although gender diversity and equality are still sorely lacking, initiatives and efforts to promote diversity cannot be entirely monochromatic. We need to consider all forms of diversity – cultural, LGBTQI+, disability, age, socioeconomic, and more. It would be a disservice to people experiencing marginalisation in all of these forms if we only spoke of diversity as cultural diversity.
Unless we have true diversity at decision making levels, we cannot claim to represent the diversity we find in our communities. This is nowhere better illustrated than in this startling video, where a soap dispenser won’t work with the hand of a black man.
This is why diversity has to be more than just lip service in the social impact space. Diversity allows those who are underrepresented and marginalised to have a voice in the process of social change. It means they’re no longer beneficiaries, but active participants.
As we incorporate diverse people and ideas into the social enterprise sector, it is critical to recognise that true social change is dependent on overhauling power systems and transforming the status quo. Otherwise, we’re contributing to the continuation of “business as usual”.
Until we understand our own innate power and privilege, most of our efforts to help will be little more than band aid solutions.
Here are some real examples of this occurring in the social enterprise sector today:
- The well-meaning philanthropic foundation whose board and management are entirely white, with no people with disabilities or from a lower socioeconomic background, meaning that projects they choose to support are dependent on lived experience and advice which is monochromatic.
- The foreign founder of a charity in a poor country, who hangs on tight to leadership because he cannot let go and let local people take the lead.
- A philanthropy conference where the entire speaker line up did not include a single person of colour, or anyone who has experienced true marginalisation.
Until diversity is fully embraced at all levels in social enterprises, we cannot claim to be representative of communities we are serving. We cannot claim to be addressing root causes of inequality. Rather, we are simply addressing symptoms. To ensure social enterprises are having the greatest impact they can, diversity must be a priority, now, not later.