Think about those times when you’ve been faced with a customer demand that brings daunting challenges but which simply has to be met. There are obstacles to overcome, roadblocks to break through, but we work it out, we find a way through and we make sure we deliver. In the workplace, our shared responsibility to create an inclusive environment, where we can bring our whole selves to work and perform at our best, calls for the same, if not a greater level of commitment. A determination to ‘walk the talk on inclusion’ and lead the way to creating more inclusive organisations for all.
I’ve seen what this means within my own family.
When she was young, my grandmother wanted to be a mathematician and probably would have shone like the women celebrated by the movie Hidden Figures if she’d had the chance, but her father made it clear that he would never agree to her advancing her education. So she became part of the great migration, a time from about 1910 to 1970 when six million Black people moved from the American South to Northern, Midwestern and Western states. Moving with her young family to Detroit, Michigan, she initially worked cleaning houses but knew she wanted more and trained to become a registered nurse.
I remember walking into a meeting with more than a dozen white men and hearing one say to another under his breath “what’s this little Black girl from Detroit going to tell us about how to run our business?” Crystal E. Ashby, Non-executive director, BAE Systems
Her journey and her courage gave me a very different message to the one she received from her father. A message that says we’re capable of whatever we set our minds to. I try to embrace this every day as a leader and I’m acutely aware of my role ensuring colleagues have the opportunity to succeed in their own journey.
As leaders we need to educate ourselves about the diversity in our team and the people we work with. We need to show empathy, listen to hear rather than to respond and not be afraid to hit the pause button when we see behaviours that shouldn’t happen.

Owning the room

There are also times when all of us – leaders or not – need to ‘own the room.’
I remember walking into a meeting with more than a dozen white men and hearing one say to another under his breath “what’s this little Black girl from Detroit going to tell us about how to run our business?”
I was there to provide legal support and made my position clear: “I will be the person telling you when you’ve gotten too close to the edge and that you need to back it up. I will be the person who, if you step across the line, will be saying that now we have a problem and have to fix it. And let’s be clear, if you step over the line, I am also the person who will be talking about that.”
Sadly, these kind of situations still happen and I’ve learned during my career that it’s not enough to have an ally in your corner who offers words of encouragement. You need to have an ‘accomplice,’ someone who will get involved and take action. These are the people who will make a difference and keep us moving in the right direction on inclusion. They’re also the people who will help us embed the qualities shown by companies with an authentic commitment to shift the dial.
Qualities such as self-awareness. Recognising our unconscious bias, the impact of our actions and how careless comments can leave people feeling hurt and neglected.
Being transparent in reporting the progress we’ve made and where we can improve.
And demonstrating trust in the people we work with. Giving them the support they need to make valuable contributions that draw on their background, experience and skills – everything that makes them unique as an individual.
When I look back over my career and where we are, both within industry and the wider socio-economic landscape, it’s clear we’ve made progress but not the changes that I would have hoped. We need to stay focused on our goal when things get difficult, think about the impact we have on others and encourage that quiet person in the room to speak up when they have something to say.
Most importantly, we need to keep making those small, positive changes in the way we live and work together that add up to a huge difference.
Inclusion. It depends on us all.

Crystal Ashby

Non-executive director, BAE Systems