Want to tackle diversity? Dump the diversity circus

I was born in Tanzania to a Ugandan father and a Rwandan-Tanzanian mother. I'm always surprised by those that talk about Africa as if it's a country and Africans as if we are all the same.

Drop the 'diversity circus' argues Elizabeth Bananuka (pic credit: Scott Reeve Photography)
Drop the 'diversity circus' argues Elizabeth Bananuka (pic credit: Scott Reeve Photography)

To me the differences between a Tanzanian and Ugandan are as clear as the differences between a Swede and a Greek.

Yes, they are both European but culture, religion, political history, geography and many other factors separate them. As they do Tanzanians and Ugandans.

More: Diversity in PR: Industry struggling to arrest 'achingly slow' progress

'I never knew that being black and a woman would be such a barrier to getting into PR'

I’m always reminded of the assumptions made about Africans when I attend events or read articles about diversity in PR.

I call it the "diversity circus", where a cast of players – women, people with a disability, blacks, gays and lesbians, muslims, northerners, those that haven't attended university and anyone else who isn’t a straight, white, southern, heterosexual, university-educated, middle-class male – are lumped together.

This sector, which is bursting with creativity and is forward-thinking in many ways, has, on the flipside, an embarrassingly old-fashioned view of diversity.

A little like the '70s pubs that used to proudly declare ‘no dogs, no blacks and no Irish’, I see a sector that tackles diversity by often dumping the "others" together.

For those of us that are wheeled out as part of the diversity circus, it’s boring at best and offensive at worst.

The challenges faced by an Oxbridge-educated wheelchair user keen to enter the sector are unlikely to be the same as a new mum high up the agency structure – so why treat them as if they are?

I’ve been in PR for ten years and I’ve often been the black sheep in the comms team (pun intended).

I can’t be the only one that has worked in international development and wondered why there are so few blacks and Asians working in comms for charities that operate in Africa and Asia and yet there are more at project delivery level?

Or why the diversity you find in the staff on hospital wards is rarely reflected in NHS press teams?

Or why I know many blacks who started their PR careers in agencies but opted out of agency life sooner than their white counterparts?

If you want to tackle diversity in PR you should be asking what the experience of each underrepresented group is – and tackling each and every barrier.

A talk with a group of BME students about how to get into PR doesn’t make you a diversity champion if your office, based in London, doesn’t reflect a city where 7 per cent are black African, 4 per cent black Caribbean and 7 per cent are Indian.

Donating to Stonewall UK means little if your agency’s drinking culture resembles that of an old-school university rugby club and reeks of homophobia.

Boasting about supporting mothers is embarrassing if your director of comms gets to do their full-time job on part-time hours for part-time pay whilst juggling the demands of bringing up baby.

A 1.5-hour diversity network meeting three times a year may make great content for your Twitter feed or LinkedIn blog, but let's get real – Rome wasn't built in a day and diversity can't be tackled in 4.5 hours a year.

If you want to tackle diversity and create a sector that reflects our society then drop the diversity circus and invest some serious time looking at the experiences of each underrepresented group.

Only then can you put a strategy in place to create positive and meaningful change.

Elizabeth Bananuka, is a freelance PR consultant and founder of the UK BME PR and Communications Group on Facebook

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