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30 Jun 2023

Moving Beyond Rainbow Washing

Moving beyond rainbow washing banner

"Well, they LOOK like they're doing a lot in D&I….. But I work there, and I don't feel it."

I hear this all too commonly. As a diversity and inclusion (D&I) professional, even I get awed by the colourful websites, saying all the right words, smiling happy staff pictures …. But what I really want to know is, what are you doing to identify and remove barriers to full inclusion at your workplace?

Rainbow washing, as defined by Urban Dictionary, is: "The act of using or adding rainbow colours and/or imagery to the advertising, apparel, accessories, landmarks… in order to indicate progressive support for LGBTQ equality (and earn consumer credibility)—but with a minimum of effort or pragmatic result." It's the diversity and inclusion equivalent of green-washing, and I think it extends beyond hijacking Pride month. It's everything that gives the impression of caring about diversity and inclusion without the hard yards to ensure true inclusion and belonging.

It looks like a company's perfectly curated D&I webpage, with smartly logoed employee resource groups (ERGs), but no dedicated resource or funding for D&I action. It looks like a beautiful photo of a work team at a Pride march, but no on-the-ground support for transitioning colleagues. It looks like smiling images of women employees on International Women's Day, but a glaring gender pay gap and no clear plan to address it.

The problem with rainbow washing is that it takes up so much energy. You're so busy window-dressing to let the world know that you get it, that you are not putting your valuable energy into the hard work, the actions which accumulate over time to shift the needle on progress. Case in point, the World Economic Forum recently predicted that at our current rate of progress, it would take 136 years to reach gender parity.

Moving beyond rainbow washing is where the hard work begins. Analysing and digging into representation gaps, reviewing and overhauling practices and policies, conducting equal pay audits, and psychologically safe listening sessions. It's uncomfortable and unglamorous, but the meaningful work will shift us from D&I being something we "do" to true inclusion and belonging, and it's worth doing. There's no doubt that change will be required - the world of work as we currently know was built 100 years ago for a largely homogeneous group. The way we've always done things needs to be fixed for the vibrant and diverse teams of our future, so we need to be ready for that.

This is the slow road. There will be less to show for your effort at the start. But when we move beyond rainbow washing, we move on to the worthy actions that will create truly inclusive workplaces we want to belong to - no more perfect D&I webpages are required.

But perhaps still pictures of employees at Pride marches and proud role models on International Women's Day, safe in the knowledge that there is no tokenising behind those smiles, and our people feel supported, included, and equal.

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