“Fish discover water last”
I loved Antony’s blog last week on this proverb. It was thought provoking and we had an interesting conversation following it about its interpretation and application throughout life and work. In thinking about how I would describe my ‘water’, it led me to something else. It felt to me like a very succinct and powerful way to describe privilege * in our society.
At the core of equality, diversity and inclusion efforts is the awareness that our world is not the same as someone else’s world. It doesn’t look the same, feel the same and doesn’t have the same opportunities or barriers as someone else’s world.
The water in my stream is not the same as yours.
What is my water?
As a straight, white, middle class person, my water is clear and unpolluted. I was lucky to go to a school that encouraged my achievements and be surrounded by people for whom going to university was an expected norm. A professional job was always in my future. I remember being shocked at 15 when someone I worked with from a different school was being forbidden by her family to do A Levels as they didn’t see the point – just get a job. One early reminder that not everyone’s water was as clear as mine.
I’ve never had to hide a relationship or modify who I am in the workplace – at least not in the way someone gay or trans might feel they had to – but I do know many people who have, whether due to sexuality or culture.
I’ve never been stopped and searched by the police. (I’ve been stopped in my car – for speeding, so…. OK fair enough!). I’ve never been followed round a shop by the security guard. But I know people who have due to the colour of their skin. My skin colour is a privilege in our society, even though my ancestry is probably less British than many of theirs.
Just because I don’t see it, doesn’t mean it isn’t happening.
But equally, as a female, I am always aware of certain things clouding my stream that my male counterparts have never experienced or considered.
I once decided not to buy a gorgeous flat because about 50m of the walk to and from the Tube station was through unlit woodland. The male estate agent didn’t get it. His privilege was not having to think like that. His female colleague understood.
I was once told by a male manager that he hadn’t backed me up in a meeting because he didn’t want the male team members to feel embarrassed about being wrong about something, and that he agreed I was right in what I had said in the meeting.
Most men haven’t been chased down a hotel corridor by a much bigger and stronger colleague softly singing, ‘I’m coming to get you! I know where your room is…’. Enjoy that privilege.
Most men are also not asked, when becoming parents, how many days a week they plan to continue working or how they will balance life and work. Every working mother is asked those questions.
I don’t know any man who has been asked in an interview when he plans to have a family. I was asked that in a job interview. Aged 22.
How can we change?
So how do we use this proverb and metaphor of privilege for good? How do we understand someone else’s water?
We talk to them. We listen. We believe them when they say their water is polluted! We educate ourselves.
We acknowledge that if we look upstream the water is clear, but what is it like as it passes us? Are we keeping it clear for others around us? We have a collective responsibility for the clarity of the water we all swim in.
It is important to stay focused. What are we all doing to keep it clear and fresh for all of us?
Paula Sheridan is a Consultant for iTS Leadership and works as a coach. She helps frustrated professional working mothers to get back on track with having the career they always thought they would have before the kids came along. Get in touch with her: https://www.linkedin.com/in/paula-sheridan/
*In talking about equality, diversity and inclusion, privilege is a word used to describe how those who are not part of a minority or discriminated against community have the ‘privilege’ of not experiencing the micro (and not so micro) aggressions that others experience on a day-to-day basis.