An Exclusive Interview with Toby Mildon, Diversity and Inclusion Architect at Mildon.
When you think about inclusive environment design, you might think about creating gender-neutral toilets. But what about creating toilets accessible for guide dogs too?
If you’re a gay man and a disabled person, where do you go when your LGBTQ+ ERG and your Disability ERG host an event on the same night?
It turns out, often our well-intentioned inclusion strategies can be exclusive.
In this interview, Toby Mildon, Diversity and Inclusion Architect at Mildon and formerly D&I lead at Deloitte and the BBC, and a pioneer of intersectionality, discuss how to make inclusion truly inclusive.
In this interview, you’ll discover:
- The problem with tackling D&I one underrepresented group at a time.
- How to navigate the tension between benefits that are genuinely inclusive and those that are naturally exclusive, like childcare supplements.
- Toby’s thoughts on “people-first” language (and inclusive language in general).
. . .
FIONA: Welcome back to Inclusion Works. Our guest today is Toby Mildon, diversity and inclusion architect at Mildon, a consultancy and advisory business he set up in 2019.
Toby works with businesses to re-engineer business processes and systems. To minimize the impact of bias. To break down cultural barriers and also build a culture of inclusion. And Toby has a forthcoming book due out in autumn 2019 tentatively titled “Inclusive Growth” which will include his proven model for building diversity and inclusion in corporates.
Before setting up his consultancy, Toby worked for several years as a diversity and inclusion leader at Deloitte and before that at the BBC. He led countless initiatives to build diversity and culture in these big businesses including targeted talent initiatives to get more women into tech, implementing family-friendly policies and practices and also improving workplace accessibility to benefit everyone but actually Toby’s background is in tech and before working in D&I he spent over a decade leading multinational projects in health tech, media and aviation. Welcome Toby. Can you tell us a bit more about all the work that you’re doing at Mildon and what you’re trying to achieve?
TOBY: Thanks Fiona. It’s great to join you today and to be with your listeners. Essentially, I work with HR directors to really enable them to hardwire diversity and inclusion into their organisation. I do that partly through the inclusive model that I’ve created which has got seven stages, that leads them from first of all thinking about why diversity and inclusion is important in terms of having a strategically aligned in the business, all the way through to how they actually deliver it in a really rigorous way. And then finally you know really collaborating with the organisation and their industry to actually make a big difference.
FIONA: Brilliant. I’ll ask you I think a little later about a little bit more about your seven-stage model because I’m fascinated to hear about that but I wanted to kick off with a question we ask all of our guests on the show which is can you tell us what personal experiences made you aware of inclusion and diversity issues and led to your work in this space.
TOBY: Yeah, it’s quite interesting because as you said in the introduction, I actually started off with my career working in technology and I was implementing IT systems into big businesses. I worked on the world’s largest healthcare technology project and then I worked for the BBC as a technical project manager working on everything from you know iPlayer radio which is radio on-demand through to the re-development of the BBC News website and things like that.
And it was when I was working at the BBC that I first got introduced to diversity and inclusion because I was working in the technology department, chief operating officer came up to me because he was concerned about the gender imbalance within that part of the BBC and bearing in mind that the BBC is about 50/50 male-female but at the time the technology department was about 14% female and so he had created an action plan to really address this gender imbalance and needed a project manager to implement that plan and that’s where I stepped in.
But I’ve also got some personal first-hand experience of diversity and inclusion. I have a disability. I was born with a rare genetic condition. I’ve used a wheelchair all of my life and I’ve had several incidents throughout my working career where I have felt excluded. So when I was working in consultancy, for example, I was banned from one of my client offices because they thought I was a fire risk and not being able to go to a Christmas party because they had organised it in a really old venue that had no wheelchair accessibility whatsoever.
FIONA: It’s amazing, actually to think in this day and age you know.
TOBY: Yeah and unfortunately these stories these stories still happen and it is really one of my key drivers for building really inclusive workplaces because I just don’t want people to experience this, when all they’re trying to do is go to work, do a good job, live their life and support their family or whatever their personal goals or situation is.
“I want everybody to go to work and feel like they belong at their employer and they see a future in the workplace.”
FIONA: Absolutely and I mean this is not even just, this is going beyond just feelings of exclusion. This is like you know you are physically excluded, right. So really accessibility I think is the most important area of inclusion, you know the place to start, right. To be able to give everyone that feeling of belonging.
TOBY: Yeah, I think one of my arguments is that if you think about inclusion from an accessibility perspective you actually end up making life better for everybody in the organisation and I’m a big fan of intersectionality because I don’t believe that we should be putting people in boxes and I am increasingly hearing a lot of frustration amongst my clients who are saying, please don’t put me in boxes. I myself am disabled and gay for example and if you’ve got to networking events on the same evening, you’ve got your disabled employee networking event and you’ve got your LGBT networking event. Which one do I go to? So I’m a really big fan of intersectionality.
FIONA: Absolutely. So just a move on just a little bit of the work that you’ve been doing in diversity and inclusion in the corporate space. So I know you’ve said before that we need a new way to implement D&I in corporates. Can you tell us what you mean by that and also share a bit more about that seven-stage model that you referenced earlier?
TOBY: Yes, so I mean perhaps let’s start with what I don’t think works because we’ve been talking for many years and businesses have been focusing on diversity and inclusion for many years and what I’m increasingly hearing is that the interventions that are often implemented within organisations are just not working and I work with some organisations who are telling me that their diversity is going backwards or stagnating and not improving and I think that’s such a shame because equality, diversity, and inclusion has been on the business agenda for like over a decade and we’re still in this position.
So when I talk about a new approach or a new way of doing things, really it goes back to user-centric design which is what I was doing in technology which is about thinking about the journeys that individuals go on within an organisation and effectively removing all of the speed humps and the roadblocks that get in their way and as a D&I practitioner or as a HR practitioner your job is to basically remove those obstacles and speed humps to enable people to get into the organisation or enable talent to thrive and that’s really what I mean by taking a different approach.
FIONA: Can you give it an example of some of those speed humps that you’d say are pretty common for instance for underrepresented groups to face in the workplace, that might hold them back from progression and fulfilling their potential.
TOBY: Yes, so let’s takes something like the recruitment process because when organisations talk about diversity and inclusion, they do very often focus on recruitment because it is a way of getting diversity through the door of the organisation and if you just break the recruitment process down into its individual steps, there are so many things that exclude talent.
So for example looking at the language that you’re using in your job ads and your job descriptions. Looking at the gender balance of those words. Have you got words in there that are like hard hitting, go-getting, that actually are kind of masculine focused and therefore tend to detract applications from women say for example. Are you using an applicant tracking system or a recruitment process system that is just not accessible and doesn’t work with assistive technology.
So if you have say a blind person applying for a job and they can’t use your applicant tracking system with their screen reader then they’re not going to be able to submit an application to you for example or perhaps you insist that everybody comes into a face-to-face interview which might be very difficult for somebody with autism for example. So there are all these things that can put things in the way and I really think that in a lot of cases,
FIONA: This reminds me a bit of the work by Professor Iris Bohnet at Harvard Kennedy School who you know she kind of famously her thesis is really we can’t de-bias people so instead we need to de-bias practices, right? Especially talent practices in business and it sounds like I mean maybe if you could just explain to us a very high level model that you’ve developed is it all about kind of going through those practices and processes or does it hit on kind of the cultural piece as well in everyday behaviours?
TOBY: It does both. So the model is split. There are seven stages that split between three phases. So in phase one which is around establishing. This is all about understanding why diversity and inclusion is important to the organisation. How it’s strategically aligned and how you get your chief executive and the senior leadership team on board and you really think about what success looks like and you define what success looks like at the very beginning.
And then go on to really thinking about intentionally thinking about what kind of inclusive culture you want to create. Looking at how your culture is right now. What you want your culture to be if it’s to be more inclusive and the steps that you need to take in order to shift that culture. In the middle section which is really around enhancing. This is really where you actually deliver the change.
First of all we look at proper change management because one of my biggest frustrations is that very often within diversity and inclusion there is no real proper change management or project management rigor like you would get if you were implementing like a new HR system for example or you were relocating loads of your employees to another part of the country and therefore you need to have that proper change management rigor put in place.
Then we go on to talk about cyber and how technology can really help amplify what you’re doing around diversity and inclusion. So could you use artificial intelligence for example or big data to really get insights into the diversity and inclusion of your workplace? And then really in the end, we have a couple of final points which surround celebration and collaboration.
Actually working collaboratively as well across your industry and your sector, so that you can make a bigger difference and then finally a celebration and that’s all about promoting your employer brand, really understanding how you can promote your inclusive workplace on social media and it’s a bit tongue-in-cheek as well why celebration is at the end because so many organisations that I’ve worked with they do the celebration at the beginning. They submit loads of awards and benchmark entries and things like that and they win the awards and they appear in the public eye as inclusive but then the lived experience of those employees is not particularly inclusive.
FIONA: Yeah, it’s a really interesting point you make and I imagine there’s a bit of a backlash effect of that, sort of celebrating too early and I’ve certainly heard that from some of the clients I’ve worked with as well and also going back to what you said about how your background in tech and kind of user design has really played into your work in diversity and inclusion, like I can see it coming out in this model right, when you talk about what is the kind of collective experience and kind of designing around individual needs and so forth.
I think this is just such a great example actually of diversity really improving our outcomes here because if you imagine that maybe most people working in this space come from a more traditional HR background, right? And maybe don’t have the sort of benefit that you’ve had of coming from a tech perspective, right? And putting that lens onto D&I and so I think it’s really interesting to see that come through in your model certainly.
TOBY: Yeah and also I talked about in the book the need to be agile and really using agile methodologies to deliver. So again, you know in previous roles that I’ve done you know I’ve worked for large organisations. I’ve spent literally months writing business cases and project plans and documents to implement a diversity and inclusion initiative.
By the time that gets approved and I start implementing, things have changed and what I’m implementing is no longer really meeting the needs of the employee. So organisations really could focus on doing a lot more agile delivery and this is something I cover in my book and actually how to do it in a very sort of practical sense but it means that you get instant feedback that what you’re implementing is going to be a lot more fit for purpose that you’re actually meeting the needs of the employees.
“Rather than treating diversity and inclusion as a standalone project or series of projects or program of activities, just do a constant iterative agile implementation, so that it just becomes the D&I of your business. It just becomes how you do things around here.”
FIONA: I love that. I can’t wait to read it actually because I work agile on my team as well and I’m such a big proponent for it. So yeah, that’s really cool to hear how you’ve have you’ve kind of baked that into your model as well. I wanted to ask you as well, so kind of in your view what is the interplay between diversity and inclusion? And which if either of them should businesses prioritize and why?
TOBY: That’s a really good question and that’s a question that I get asked a lot and it’s not either-or. The two have to work hand in hand because diversity is what can be, it’s effectively what can be measured.
“Diversity is like holding up a mirror and really looking at your reflection in the mirror to see if the diversity of your organisation is as diverse as the customers that you serve and the diversity of the communities in which you are based in.”
If the answer is no, we are not as diverse as our customer base and we are not as diverse as the communities in which we operate, then you need to increase diversity because you need to be mirroring the diversity of those pools. Inclusion is about how effectively people feel when they show up to work and whether they feel like they belong to the organisation, whether they feel like they have a future in the organisation. Whether they can see themselves reflected in that organisation as well and that is inclusion.
“Inclusion is how you feel when you show up to work; and whether you belong; and that you’re included; and all of your talents can play to your strengths. Inclusion is when you’re given equal opportunities to career-defining opportunities just like everybody else in the business.”
FIONA: So I know that much of the D&I work that you’ve done in-house at Deloitte and the BBC focused on quite targeted initiatives to improve gender balance. So a lot of organisations that I speak to struggle with the tension between delivering diversity efforts that are genuinely inclusive, so meaning they cut across demographics and benefit everyone whilst also designing quite targeted initiatives which by definition are going to be exclusive. For instance, like stuff around childcare supplements which, of course, only benefit parents. So what’s your view on this and how can we kind of toe the line between being inclusive and also offering targeted initiatives?
TOBY: Well we need to have both. So it’s really important that organisations lead on culture first and foremost thinking about what it’s like and what are the values of the organisation? What are the cultural artefacts, that make people feel like they are included and they belong to that organisation. So that’s the first point.
When it comes to diversity, I think it really you know organisations do need to take a targeted intervention, where change is needed and sometimes that can be targeting a particular group of people. So for example, if you want to look at improving your parental leave policies for example, being more inclusive of working parents both male and female, mothers and fathers. That will primarily affect the parents of your organisation, but I do think that we need to think more broadly and in a more intersectional manner.
So I’ll give you a funny story. When I first started working for one of my former companies, we were opening up a brand new head office in London and I met with our LGBT network because they were concerned about the lack of gender-neutral toilets in the building. We’re having a conversation about toilets and halfway through the meeting I just stopped and I was and I said to them, “hang on a minute, why are all the other networks not involved in this because we’re talking about gender-neutral toilets but why aren’t we talking about disabled or accessible toilets? Why are we not talking about toilets for guide dogs?”.
We need to be having one conversation about toilets in this new building rather than thinking in silos and this is really what happens and what I see a lot happens is that when organisations talk about diversity, what they’re actually talking about is women and gender and so they go okay we need to get more women to the top of the business. So we’re going to– what we need to do is we need to fix the women and we need to put women into our career development program and give them mentoring and confidence-boosting and things like that.
Once they’ve done that, they then have a similar conversation around ethnicity for example. So they go well we need to create you know a career development program before ethnic minority people and then perhaps we should do one for disability. Then maybe we should do one for LGBT and I’m like no, just have one career development program for everybody. That is as inclusive as it can be so that everybody has an equal opportunity of progressing their career within the organisation.
FIONA: I completely agree, actually just this morning I was having an impassioned conversation with some colleagues about this very issue you know of this horrible advice you see that’s basically like these are the career tips, these are the things you must do and it’s essentially encouraging people from underrepresented groups to not be themselves, right, like to be more like a man. Be more like majority group you know and it’s really offensive and I think you know alongside as you say offering these sorts of career development opportunities for literally everyone.
As you have in your model already you know also targeting what are the structural barriers that come through in the policies in the way that we do things. How can we dismantle those and also kind of build the awareness and build the buy-in and the understanding, so that you know the way people do things every day isn’t kind of tinged with bias as well.
TOBY: Yeah, absolutely. I’m a big fan of looking at the process and the structure and the infrastructure of how bias occurs and how the speed humps and the roadblocks are created and really addressing that structural stuff. So rather than say putting women into a career development program, go out, ask them what is preventing them from thriving in the organisation and rising to the top of the organisation. You might be very surprised with what they say because they might come back and say something like, “well actually we’re really bad at flexible working and it’s the flexible working that is preventing me from advancing my career because I just cannot balance my work and personal commitments at the same time.”
So as an organisation you get a lot more return on investment if you put in a really good agile or flexible working practices rather than spending lots of money on bringing external coaches and trainers into an organisation to “Fix people”.
FIONA: Yeah, I completely agree and again it’s that kind of intersectional view, right? Because I imagine that flexible working is the sort of policy that like a rising tide lifts all boats, right? It is good for everyone. It benefits everyone.
TOBY: Absolutely. And this is the whole thing around this user-centered design approach that I’m talking about in my book. I think a lot of people are afraid to think of you know well if I think of a particular individual you know let’s call them Joe Bloggs. If I think of a particular individual in my organisation Joe Bloggs and I think about the obstacles that he or she faces and then I try and remove those obstacles, I’m removing those obstacles for Joe Bloggs but what about everybody else? And actually, it’s a bit of a false fallacy thinking because actually if you remove the obstacles for Joe Bloggs, you’re going to make life better for everybody and you just have to have faith that that particular process works.
FIONA: Thanks. Yeah and just to change gears a bit I heard from many of our clients and users that they get tripped up by language and given you’re an expert in accessibility and disability, I really wanted to take this opportunity to ask you a bit about language. So kind of what I’ve heard from as you say going and asking people what’s tricky for them in the D&I space. It’s you know not knowing the right language to use when talking about diversity and actually I created a really simple glossary in our inclusion toolkit to try to help with this specific issue and one sticky issue I’ve come across when speaking about disability is whether or not to use people-first language.
So since you’re an expert, can you explain to listeners what is people-first language and also the views that are kind of on both sides of the debate and would you still recommend using people-first language personally?
So you would say you know a person with a disability versus a disabled person and it’s a really interesting debate because like you said there are arguments on both sides. So then one of the key arguments about being a person first, so a person with a disability is that it’s all around identity really and how you identify and how you want to be seen. I want to be seen as a person rather than I want to be seen as my disability. And the thing is there are arguments on both sides because actually you know in day to day language, I just use kind of the disability first language. I will say some if I’m phoning up a restaurant to reserve a table and I want to just check if they’re accessible. I will say oh I’m you know I’m disabled, do you have wheelchair access, rather than I am a person with a disability, do you have wheelchair access?
Yeah, there are some disability communities that are also you know claiming the title say you know you’ve got the deaf community with a big capital D and they know they’re really claiming the deaf community as a kind of a disability first approach I suppose and really creating a culture around deafness and they’re similar you know with autism as well, using autism with a capsule A rather than a small A and really claiming it and it’s a bit of a minefield.
Everyone has their own perspective, whoever you talk to you might end up putting your foot– you might end up getting it wrong and I think this is one of the key points around language is that so many people that I talk to in businesses are really afraid of saying and doing the wrong thing and quite frankly being embarrassed or looking a bit stupid and therefore they don’t take any action which doesn’t help because they just avoid the situation or they avoid taking any action and I think we need to be braver at.
Because if people say to me is it okay if I refer to you as a disabled person then I would be, “yeah sure doesn’t bother me at all, go ahead“. If they say, is it okay if I call you a cripple, then I would say actually no. I’m offended by that, so please don’t refer to me as a cripple.
FIONA: That’s a great answer. I know I mean I think in writing this kind of glossary so to speak that I created last year just like set this ground rule, basically if you’re really well-intentioned and you start off with this is going to sound very British now but you start off with a bit of an apology, like I’m really sorry I’m clueless about this stuff but could you help me understand or you know could you tell me if this is the right term to use or you know you’re really you’re not going to get too wrong with this and you’re not going to anger people, right. So I think it’s always as you say it’s you have to sort of have that courage and be like right, I’m going to engage in this conversation because I know if I don’t it’s like it will be the white elephant in the room or I’m not going to be able to meaningfully be an ally here or you know you’re not going to be able to support and champion the rights of underrepresented people.
TOBY: Best managers that I’ve worked with have been the ones that have sat me down and said I’m not really experienced in disability. I haven’t had much experience and how should I refer to your disability? What you shouldn’t do is make comments in the office which are basically microaggressions which is things like oh how fast can you go in that thing referring to my wheelchair or oh be careful, don’t run over my feet will you and I’m just like every time people say that to me I roll my eyes because I’m just like that is so unnecessary.
But actually if somebody says to me you know in it quite apologetic way like you say this it’s rather British almost to do this but you know I’m sorry but I’m not particularly experienced in this but can you just enlighten me and what the best way of doing this would be is that’s a much better way of doing it.
FIONA: Thanks for sharing that. I really appreciate it and I also I mean I think it’s cool this whole kind of reclaiming the disability as you mentioned in the deaf community in autism and you certainly seen this you know in the past with other underrepresented groups like reclaiming the word black, reclaiming the word queer and I think it’s it can be quite empowering for people and I guess the rest of us just want to be really sensitive to this and say the right thing.
TOBY: Recognizing the disability because so often people will say to me like for example when I talk about this in the unconscious bias workshops I do around the way that we tend to rationalize our biases as a way of kind of excusing some of our biased decisions and one of those is around colour blindness which is a bit Americanization but essentially colour blindness is where you kind of deliberately overlook somebody’s characteristic.
So people have said to me in the past, of course, I don’t see the disability. I don’t see the wheelchair. I just see you as an individual and I’m like on one level I think that’s charming that they see me as an individual but maybe they have a vision impairment themselves because actually I’m sitting in a 144 kilogram wheelchair and it’s very obvious that I have a physical disability. So that does have to be acknowledged and recognized.
FIONA: And I mean it really when you make comments like that that oh I’m colour blind or I don’t see your disability, I think the reason why those are considered a microaggression is because you’re denying that person’s experience, right? You’re denying your lived experience and alongside that you’re really denying all the very real structural barriers that person has experienced, it’s come along with that identity, right and that’s problematic too.
TOBY: Human identity is such a core part of our being and if people challenge our personal identities, it really cuts through the core.
FIONA: So I appreciate all your insights there. That was really fascinating. Thanks. So what is one unpopular opinion that you have about diversity and inclusion?
TOBY: So one unpopular opinion I have about diversity and inclusion is that diversity is not about white straight women and you know my mom is a white straight woman and the thing is diversity includes everybody and the reason why this opinion is perhaps unpopular is because when I talk t organisations about how they define diversity and what they mean by diversity, they start talking immediately about women in the organisation. Getting to the women to the top of the business etcetera etcetera.
They completely ignore other types of diversity. So they’re focused on white women say they’re not even focused on black women or lesbian or anything like that and so that’s why that’s a bit unpopular and I think I don’t mind being unpopular because I want to move the conversation towards inclusion. I want people to be thinking about inclusion first and recognizing that diversity includes absolutely everybody, and we are all diverse and that’s just the nature of our upbringing and lived experience and personal circumstances and skills etcetera like that.
FIONA: Yeah, I completely agree with you and I don’t know why it is that this space is full of white straight women working in diversity, right. It seems like it’s kind of the standard thing, certainly in the UK and I thinkit’s a little bit better in the US actually with the kind of work I’ve done with D&I in the US, but it seems to me like going back to the point you made earlier that a lot of businesses feel like gender is where they should start, right, like we’ll start with gender because this is a key issue. This is an obvious issue. This is an easy to measure issue. This is an issue that no one’s going to complain about and that we all know is the right thing to do and then we’ll move on to others and as you say like it’s not a really reasonable thing to do because you end up excluding people in that process and it’s not best for business. It’s not best for your culture.
I think it was– I was speaking to Aubrey Blanche on this show, few episodes back and she’s the head of D&I at Atlassian and she made this great point that when they are designing initiatives at Atlassian, they start by really stress testing it against an individual who is as far removed from the majority group as possible. So, for instance, let’s see if this would work well for someone who is a transgender disabled woman, right. And then understanding okay so if it works with that kind of level of intersectionality then it will also benefit everyone. I think that’s a really interesting kind of mental exercise to do when you’re designing these sorts of things.
TOBY: Yes. That is a really good approach and it goes back to the user-centered design that I was talking about and rather and perhaps rather than thinking about one individual who is as far removed, it’s about getting a multidisciplinary team together and designing from that perspective because we know that the more diverse a team is that the better performing it will be. So why not apply that logic to diversity and inclusion interventions and programs as well.
FIONA: Yeah, I agree. So finally what is one simple thing that anyone could do this week to build inclusion in their workplace?
TOBY: The one thing that could be done but I strongly advocate because it’s such an eye-opener is organise a focus group. Get a bunch of people together and if you have say diversity networks then that’s such an easy win because you can contact all of those networks and say hey I’m organizing a focus group. The purpose of the focus group is I want to really understand how inclusive it is working here. What is your day-to-day experience like working in the organisation and again get a diverse group of people, so don’t go to your Women’s Network for example and just approach them, go to all of the networks or go to as many employees as possible and organize a focus group and really get those insights and stories from employees because that will be such a golden opportunity to formulate a great strategy meeting force.
FIONA: And I’ve seen the research that simply the act of asking people how included they feel makes them feel more included, right. So really hearing those stories, hearing those voices and starting to take action on it is a powerful powerful thing to do as well.
TOBY: Yeah you have to take action. So if you ask the question of how included do you feel? Give them the opportunity to explain their answers. That really acts on what they’re telling you. If they say I’m not feeling particularly included because of this particular behavior, then design something that will challenge that and change that behavior.
FIONA: Well, thank you so much Toby for sharing these insights with us. I’m sure there’s a lot to take away. So if anyone wants to stay connected with you, what’s the best way for them to do that?
TOBY: I live on LinkedIn, so the best way of contacting me is through LinkedIn. Just send me a connection request, send me a message and I will reply to you. So LinkedIn is the place to be. You can also follow me on Twitter as well @tobymildon.
FIONA: Wonderful. Thank you so much Toby.
. . .
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An Exclusive Interview with Toby Mildon, Diversity and Inclusion Architect at Mildon.
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