Who are you reading and who are you silencing? The tale of how I diversified the voices from whom I learn

Three figures. One covers the mouth, other the eyes, the third one the ears.

Image by Peggy and Marco Lachmann-Anke from Pixabay.

(6 min read)

The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is […] that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Before using the term diversity and inclusion advocacy, I had already identified the need for it. I’m a woman, STEM studies, work in tech, and I’ve been an immigrant all my life. This intersection of out-group identities has often resulted in being seen as the other. It has also prompted me to consciously endeavour to listen and empower members of other out-groups.

However, a little more than a year ago, I realized that, unconsciously, I was silencing those other voices.

At the end of 2018, scrolling through my social media feed, I came across a post from a woman commenting on her challenge of only reading books written by women for a year. She had taken that decision after realizing that most of what she was reading was written by white men.

This made me pause. I quickly wrote down the list of the authors that I had read through that year. The result of this diversity assessment was humbling. The authors on my list were mostly white. Anglophone. Women when discussing gender and, with very few exceptions, men for business books.

Did I regret the books I read in 2018? No. But I was concerned by my lack of “consciousness” regarding the voices I was listening to.

Also, I realized that, prior to writing down the names, I was under the impression that I was reading and listening to a very diverse array of voices. I was under the spell of the salience bias, our tendency to remember objects, situations, and information that are more prominent, ignoring what is less conspicuous. For example, stereotyped and minority groups (e.g. gender, ethnicity) tend to be more salient [source]. This explains my distorted recollection of having read mostly women writers compared to the actual numbers.

Next, I looked at my podcasts list. Again the same landscape. With few exceptions, I was restricting my listening world to Anglo-Saxon white men’s voices and perspectives.

I consider myself an equality, diversity, and inclusion champion. I’ve lived in 3 continents, I’m a native Spanish speaker and fluent in French, I have collaborated with customers and colleagues from 50+ countries… and I was ignoring all those voices in my book and podcast choices. Most of the books I purchased and the podcasts I downloaded were representative of a small sample of the worldwide population.

Moving from words to deeds

I was resolved to do something. My day to day job as head of support operations is well suited to my belief that if you want to change something you need to create your accountability system: set the objectives, measure them, and monitor the progress against the goal.

In God we trust, all the others have data.

Edwin R. Fisher

I started with setting a target of reading 40 books in 2019. Almost a 50% jump from the previous year. (Scoop: I missed it by 5 books).

Then, I set the categories I wanted to track. I started small. First, I monitored how many of the books I read were written or co-authored by women. As the months passed, I added other categories. E.g. ethnicity, religion, disability. Also, if they were written in Spanish or in French, if they were fiction or non-fiction. I created empty categories as reminders that I intended to fill them with at least one book.

By November 2019, I realized that I was quite behind! Also, that my LGBTQ+ bucket had only one entry. I decided to explore graphic novels and comics to try to catch-up with my target for the year. Thanks to Google, Goodreads, and Amazon, I found two graphic novels that are a true gem: “Queer: A Graphic Story” by Meg-John Baker and “Good Talk: A Memoir in Conversations” by Mira Jacob. Thought-provoking reads that touch topics such as motherhood, interracial marriage, LGBTQ+, politics, and religion, written or co-written by women and/or gender non-binary authors. What a fantastic way to wrap up the year!

I was less successful with the podcasts. I didn’t track by episode, but I tried to keep my subscriptions balanced in terms of gender. One for my top listens in the area of disability was the wonderful Breaking Barriers podcast series. Two of the six episodes focused on people with disabilities. It made me think about how little visibility they have in mainstream podcasts in domains such as business.

The third area where I started to question my choices were newsletters. ZORA Medium and POCIT Weekly put perspective to an otherwise a quite “white” list of business bulletins.

Why should you care?

Because

  • The objective-measuring-monitoring loop worked. I now look back at my 2019 book/podcast/newsletter picks and I’m proud that I took control. They are far from perfect, but there is a notable improvement in the alignment between my values and the voices I hear.
  • Adding constraints to what I read and listen to has been a revelation. I discovered a myriad of new worlds. Sometimes because of what I read about, but mainly because to whom I read.
  • It’s not only me. I’m part of a group in Manchester – the city where I live – that meets once a month to further the advancement of women at the workplace. Last November, it was my turn to chair the meeting about Celebrating women in power. As a homework, I asked the attendees to complete a survey requesting the percentage of the books (podcast) they read (listen) in 2019 that were created (hosted) by women. The general agreement was that they too had been caught by the salience bias: they had overestimated the percentage of books and podcast created by women they had read and listened to during the year.

I plan to continue in 2020. Again, setting objectives, measuring, and monitoring are key to success. Tempted?

My top 5 tips to increase the breadth of the voices we listen to

1.- Conduct an audit of what you read, listened, and watched in 2019. Take pen and paper, a spreadsheet, or a word document and write the books you read and their authors. Then, conduct a demographic assessment of the list of authors. For example, how many of the books you read were written by women? What about authors of other genders? How does your list of authors look like through the lenses of ethnicity?

Then, you can extend your analysis to the podcast you listen to, the series you watch, or the sports events you attend.

As discussed above, the salience bias is always lurking, so don’t rely on your “gut feeling”. Write down the names.

2.- Start by picking one or two demographic categories you want to track in 2020. For example, if you want to concentrate on business books, it’s easy to track how many of the books you are reading are written by women. Then, after a couple of months, maybe check the ethnicity of the authors.

For 2020, my categories are (so far):

  • Total number of books
  • Business
  • Disability
  • Disagree (this is to remember to read at least one book from an author or point of view I don’t agree with)
  • Ethnicity (non-white authors)
  • Fiction
  • French (original language)
  • Gender (as a topic)
  • LGBTQ+ authors
  • Religion
  • Spanish (original language)
  • Tech
  • Women Authors

3.- Choose how you’ll keep track of what you read (or listen or watch). Remember, measuring is essential to compliance.

For books, I found the free Goodreads platform, owned by Amazon, a good compromise between the level of tracking and effort. Goodreads desktop – I don’t use the app – enables users to organize books by assigning them to shelves (also known as tags or list). You can add a book to several shelves. I especially like that I can keep adding and modifying shelves throughout the year. Check  this post for a good overview of Goodreads’ capabilities.

Don’t like it? You can use Evernote, Pinterest boards, an Excel spreadsheet, or even a pen and a notebook.

If books or podcasts are not your thing, you may want to consider to track the movies, series, and sports events you watch.

NOTE: I haven’t found an easy way to keep track of podcasts and newsletters other than my Podcast app and my email. Ideas welcomed!

4.- Don’t try to find “the” one book that compiles in a volume all the voices you have missed during your life. Increasing the variety of voices you hear, especially those that are more intersectional, takes some research and several books. It’s easy to give up trying to find the perfect title. Personally, I found that books structured as a collection of essays from different authors were a good antidote to this “analysis-paralysis” conundrum. Great examples are

Remember: Constrain is your friend (and Google and Amazon). If you have empty categories, be bold and ask your preferred search engine, book club, or library for suggestions. Still undecided? Ask for suggestions in the comments.

5.- Monitoring and accountability are key. We all forget to keep an eye on the endless list of promises we do to ourselves every year. It’s for that reason that I’ve scheduled a quarterly email to myself to remind me to check on how well I’m doing filling in my categories. Is my accountability board making me proud? Can I add more categories to increase the challenge?

If you need an accountability buddy, join the Curious Minds & Diverse People 2020 challenge by signing here and receive a copy of my quarterly email reminding you to monitor your progress.

I’ll be using the hashtag #CuriousMindsDiversePeople2020 in my posts this year as a gentle nudge.

Creativity thrives in unlikely intersections between people. When you consider whose voices or experiences aren’t included and you seek out those perspectives, solutions emerge that would not have been possible were it not for the unexpected intersection.

Kat Holmes

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