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Let’s get personal: Four lessons I’ve learnt about putting diversity and inclusion into practice

Written by Pip Arthur, Chair of Microsoft Australia’s Diversity and Inclusion Council

It’s been just over a year since I became the Chair of Microsoft Australia’s Diversity and Inclusion Council. One of the early things I learned was the importance of understanding others’ lived experiences as a catalyst for building allyship and creating an inclusive workplace culture. 

That’s why we created the Voice+ platform – a place for our employees to share their stories and learn more of others’ experiences. From the outset, we also decided to share these stories externally as written features to amplify the power of our employee voices and extend their impact outside of Microsoft. 

I never could have imagined how much conversation the podcast and feature stories would spark. From the guests who have shared their stories with bravery and vulnerability, to the listeners and readers who have sat with their own discomfort and resolved to do better, it’s been inspiring to witness the power of storytelling firsthand.  

Now, one year in, I’d like to share some of the lessons the podcast’s wonderful guests have taught me about inclusion, from the importance of uncomfortable conversations to the necessity of making it personal.  

1. You can’t be what you can’t see 

Like most people, I had already heard the idea of ‘you can’t be what you can’t see’. I knew that, when we see people who look like us in positions of power, we feel inspired. Whether we’re aiming for a management role or a prime ministership, we feel that if someone like us can reach those heights, then maybe we can too. 

But speaking to Rachel Bondi, Chief Partner Officer at Microsoft Australia and one of the Voice+ podcast’s first guests, profoundly brought the idea home for me.  

Rachel explained that, like many people with invisible disabilities, she had spent years covering her deafness at work. When I asked her what had changed – why she now felt comfortable speaking about her deafness – she chalked it up to seeing Jenny Lay-Flurrie become Microsoft’s Chief Accessibility Officer in 2016.  

The frankness and openness with which Jenny spoke about her deafness made Rachel feel she had permission to disclose her own disability. I think there’s a lesson for all of us there: by showing up as the most honest version of yourself, you might inadvertently help others to do the same.  

It was something Alistair Stratford, Territory Channel Manager and another guest on the Voice+ podcast, touched on too. Having moved from the British Navy to the corporate world, Alistair was aware of how hard this transition can be for veterans. So, he joined the Military at Microsoft Employee Resource Group.  

“I thought that if I could share my experience with them, they’d see that it improves,” Alistair told me. “If I can do it, anyone can do it.”  

2. Getting comfortable with being uncomfortable  

It’s no secret that conversations about inclusion can make us uncomfortable. We worry that our questions will inadvertently cause offence. We’re scared that we’ll have to examine those prejudiced parts of ourselves we’re not proud of.  

As Microsoft’s Chief Diversity Officer, Lindsay-Rae McIntyre, puts it: “We can’t talk about being inclusive as if it were something easy, or we avoid acknowledging the hard work it entails.” 

When Cloud Solution Architect Tareq Mandou joined me on the podcast, he explained that this discomfort is a good sign – it means we’re making progress.  

“The moment I feel uncomfortable about asking someone about something related to their culture or their background, I know I’m starting to challenge myself,” he told me. 

But I do think that inclusion can be achieved by asking more questions of each other and just understanding each other a little bit more.

Our efforts to be better allies and advocates might be clumsy. We might use the wrong words or say the wrong things. But at Microsoft, where we embrace the growth mindset, that’s not a reason to give up. It’s a reason to keep trying. 

3. Honesty is never a bad idea   

At Microsoft, we all work to foster a psychologically safe environment. And it shows – in 2020, 88 per cent of Microsoft employees feel included at work. So, when Nathan Wilson and his husband prepared to start their family, the Category Management Lead for Microsoft 365 never considered keeping the news a secret.  

“I’ve always felt I could be my authentic self at Microsoft,” Nathan told the podcast. “And this wasn’t any different. My teammates were so invested in the journey. It was like, ‘Are you pregnant yet? Are you pregnant yet?’” 

Mitch Shelley, Xbox Channel Marketing Manager, another member of Microsoft Australia’s LGBTQI+ community and another new dad, had the same experience. But what surprised both men in sharing their stories was how many of their co-workers had travelled down similar paths.  

“Maybe I was a bit naïve, but I didn’t realise how common IVF was,” said Mitch. And to have those stories told to me with such frankness and openness, it brought me closer to a lot of my colleagues.”  

Hearing their colleagues’ stories made Mitch and Nathan realise they weren’t alone in their parenting journeys – far from it. 

4. It’s got to be personal  

Each guest on the podcast has a different story. They’ve travelled different roads and they’ve faced different challenges. What they have in common, though, is a determination to use their experiences to become better allies to others.  

That’s certainly something I took away from my conversation with Kelly McKenzie, AI Marketing Lead. When Kelly’s twin boys arrived 13 weeks early, her world turned upside down. But the experience meant that, when the boys were in good health and Kelly returned to work at Microsoft, she came armed with an arsenal of newfound empathy.  Kelly shares:

The way I see it, my own experience was an invitation to help the people around me.

So, she became involved with Microsoft’s REAL Mates, a mental health peer support program for which she underwent intensive training to learn how to help colleagues in need.  

Mitch, Nathan, Alistair, Kelly, Tareq and Rachel have all taken the same trajectory. They’ve used their own challenges to develop a deeper sense of empathy for what others are going through. Then, in one way or another, they’ve channelled that empathy into advocacy and allyship.  

I think this might be the most important lesson they’ve taught me and all the listeners of the Voice+ podcast: that inclusion starts with empathy. In other words, if we want to make meaningful progress on diversity and inclusion, we have to make it personal. 

Find out how Microsoft’s people are turning empathy into action in our Global Diversity and Inclusion Report 2020