Unless you are my grandma, I am probably not going to listen to your voicemail. Voicemails are clunky and awkward- I find it easier to just follow up. But recently, I listened to a voicemail I want to share with you all:
“We understand that this pre-employment assessment does not account for nonbinary individuals, such as yourself, and apologize that you will be misgendered throughout the timed exam. We have called the creators of the assessment and raised our concerns. They have assured us that they will continue to work on this problem. You have the option to forego the assessment if you wish. Please give me a call back to discuss how you would like to proceed.”
Now, I am not writing this to call out the specific individuals or organizations involved. Instead, I am sharing this anecdote because I think it is the perfect illustration of, well, this viral illustration*:
I field a lot of questions about this and similar images in my work as an equity educator. As nonprofit professionals, I am confident that most of you have come across this image or some version of it. I most often hear feedback along these lines:
- Concerns regarding the racial makeup of folks in the image
- Does this image mean that “equity” is not the end goal?
- Isn’t there still a barrier in the final panel of the image?
- Why are these people “trapped” outside of the game in the first place?
- Is the baseball picture any better? Or the bicycle?
I personally believe that these questions and critiques are valid. The language and images we use impact not only how our message is received but what the message itself is perceived to be. For a deeper dive on why this particular image and it’s many variations perpetuate problematic narratives, head here. Instead of adding to the noted critiques of this image, I want to explore my real-world example showcasing exactly how equity does not equal justice.
Throughout the nonprofit sector, many organizations are embracing the need for specific Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) roles or initiatives. In regards to equity work, The National Council of Nonprofits “urge(s) each nonprofit to articulate its own values and be guided by them.” I want to be clear that I support these efforts. I want nonprofits to publicly state their commitments to diversity, equity, and inclusion. But we need for nonprofits to show their commitment through their actual programs, policies, and procedures.
So, back to that recruiter voicemail. Shelving the decades-long debate on bias in pre-employment testing for the moment, let’s briefly summarize what doesn’t sit well with me in that message:
- They know what the specific problem is. The recruiter acknowledges that the test is not designed for people who share my identity.
- They understand the problem is pervasive. The recruiter acknowledges that the test will repeatedly misgender me throughout the timed exam. Misgendering nonbinary folks is a common microaggression and, much like racist microaggressions, it negatively impacts our performance and well-being.
- They offer an individual-level intervention. I was offered what I consider the non-option of “opting out.” I want to move forward in this application process and feel that choosing to not complete portions of that process will ultimately work against me. The proposed intervention also only addresses the issue for me, not other nonbinary folks.
- They will continue using this same assessment moving forward. They explain that the root of the problem, the assessment company, is outside the locus of their control.
That last point is the real kicker. This recruiter had great intentions and I was genuinely impressed that they called the assessment company and asked them to change the test. That’s solid advocacy in my book. But that advocacy– and their organization’s statement discussing a strong commitment to DEI– falls flat when the choice is made to stick with a broken tool. Once you or your organization realizes that a policy, procedure, tool, or partner is perpetuating inequity please don’t apologize for it and move forward. Fix it or find something better. Don’t tell me that you are committed to equity, show me that you are fighting for justice.
I do not want to be living in the world of the first panel or the second panel from above. I do not want the metaphorical “boxes” from above to make things accessible. Frankly, it feels pathologizing to navigate conversations along the lines of, “There’s no plan for someone like you.” Continuing to accept or offer individual- level interventions, “boxes,” without critique perpetuates a system where we never address the underlying cause of the inequity. It contributes to the narrative that members of marginalized groups “need help” or are “seeking special treatment.” When you or your organization finds yourself in a similar position as the recruiter – acknowledging that something you are using or doing is perpetuating inequity – recognize that you are facing a systems-level issue. Systems-level issues require systems-level interventions. Please don’t put the burden of navigating those shortcomings on individuals. Do not spend your time and resources deploying more and more “boxes” to create equitable access. Address the actual barriers. Reflect on your commitment to DEI and take responsibility for actualizing it.