The ‘other’ side of workplace diversity narratives within juridical organizations.

Sylvia van der RaadPhD candidate Sylvia van der Raad conducts research into the diversity policies of juridical organizations. In spite of good intentions, diversity seems more difficult to practice than to preach on the level of everyday interactions on the work floor. Sylvia van der Raad gives us an insight into the experiences of Moroccan- and Turkish-Dutch young professionals in juridical organizations. She advises juridical organizations to be more reflective about dominant frames of reference that shape everyday interactions. It’s not a question of “walk and talk, but walk the walk and talk the talk”.

Can you imagine what the following must be like: hearing that you are a “bicultural talent” and that your “bicultural characteristics” are of great and unique value for the organization you wish to work for, and then finding out that your so-called “added value” is in practice more often perceived as a risk or a burden to the organization and that it is actually highly ‘appreciated’ if you meet the norm and “just fit in, just like another employee”? This is what my research participants, Turkish-Dutch and Moroccan-Dutch juridical professionals, experience on a daily bases.

Many organizations within the Bar and the judiciary strive for more diversified work forces.  In practice, this means that so-called diversity practitioners (those involved in developing diversity policies and programmes) and hr-managers are instructed to attract more juridical professionals (e.g. lawyers, judicial clerks, judges) with a non-Dutch ethnic background, mainly Turkish-Dutch and Moroccan-Dutch.

The ambition to create a more ethnically diverse work force within the Bar originates in the assumption that heterogeneous workforces  perform better and, as a result, are good for business. Additionally, with regard to the judiciary (e.g. the courts), the main argument for diversity holds that this institution with its large societal role ought to be a reflection of society in order to acquire public confidence as, as the chair of the Counsel for the Judiciary (Rvdr)  puts it, “[…] one of the shortcomings of the judiciary is its lack of recognisability and its inability to bridge society and the judiciary”. During my research project I learned that no effort is avoided to propagate commitment to the diversity-message ‘We Love Inclusiveness’!

How different is the everyday reality of my research participants! Participants in my project confided in me that once they enter the organization and start working, their once so celebrated “otherness” vanishes into thin air. They are often seen as “exotic rarities”, (sometimes even called “tropical surprises”), perceived as backwards because of their assumed Islamic affiliations, and almost always viewed as incapable of managing the Dutch language to an appropriate standard. Participants denounce impertinent questions posed by their colleagues on a daily bases for example about Ramadan: “can you have sex during Ramadan?” or “Are you married off to a cousin?”. Especially after 9/11 and the murder on filmmaker Theo van Gogh in particular, such questions increased and their tone became more and more judgmental: “Why do you have two nationalities?” or “How do you feel about the 9/11 attackers, you are also a Muslim right, just as they were?” These questions are experienced as upsetting as, when posed, they always single out one and the same element of my participants’ identity: their (assumed) Islam faith. My participants feel that they have to defend themselves about issues that are not relevant or appropriate in a professional context.

In other words, my research shows that it is not enough for organizations to have a promising diversity policy and a fashionable matching diversity programme. A real inclusive approach of diversity requires self-knowledge and reflexivity from within. Knowing what happens on the work floor during everyday interactions and acknowledging and questioning dominant mindsets are just as important, if not indispensable requisites, for the careful consideration of space for otherness and diversity. Making majority employees aware of their frames of reference, often infused by dominant societal discourses about minority groups, and their often taken-for-granted assumptions, would be a start to open up the discussion about the difference true openness to otherness can make for an organization. Knowing oneself opens up space to be mindful about ‘the other’. I think that this would be a vital step in truly inclusive diversity policies. “Do not just walk and talk, but walk the walk and talk the talk”, I would like to say to all these organizations that seemingly sincere try to enhance a diversified workforce.

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