How to make sure that everyone has fun on the dancefloor

Ina Liu MBA2021 is convinced that society is changing for the better in terms of diversity and inclusivity


In 30 seconds:

  • In broader society, the reality is you’re not going to belong everywhere
  • Not everyone is open to talking about things such as gender and race and everything that makes us different
  • But we’re moving in the right direction, partly because higher education is putting more emphasis on it
  • We’re creating the leaders of tomorrow, and what they’re being taught in classrooms and practising with their peers is what we can expect to see in organisations in the next five years

I grew up in a family where diversity and inclusion were really important. My family helped me to understand that people come from all kinds of backgrounds and that everyone should feel welcome, and that we should consider other people’s perspectives and be empathetic to their feelings and needs. So that’s something I’ve always actively looked for in organisations that I’ve wanted to be a part of.

For example, when I look at an organisation and see they have female role models I could work with, I feel inspired, because it shows there’s a way for people like me. There are women who are breaking the glass ceiling and others who are shattering so many societal boundaries and making their voices heard, and all of that is really inspirational. To me, when we come together, we can accomplish more than who we are individually.

Sense of belonging

I’m currently a consultant at Bain’s Boston office and one of the things that really stood out to me when I was recruiting was the number of inspiring female leaders. I had the pleasure of meeting some of them and it was incredible hearing their stories and how they’ve managed to be successful in their careers, while finding things they love to do outside of work to have a balanced lifestyle. Those women have been pillar mentors in helping me figure out where I should take my career, what things I should consider and how I can become better.

Earlier in my career I worked in an organisation that didn’t have as many female role models. In fact, most people graduated from the same two universities and had significantly more experience in the field. As a result, I struggled a bit. I thought, am I doing the right thing? Who do I go to for advice? I felt my journey was so different from what other people at work had gone through and often they didn’t understand my challenges because of those differences.

In broader society, the reality is you’re not going to belong everywhere. The feeling of not being part of something can be really tough, especially before you find the people that you do belong with.

No matter how much an organisation tries to foster a sense of community and to make everyone feel like they’re a part of it, you’re not going to get along with everyone. I’ve been very fortunate in always feeling like I belong, even though not every place I’ve worked at has been very diverse. Part of that is because I’m happy to be the first point of representation, such as the first woman or Asian person in a group.

But that process can be hard and it can feel very uncomfortable, especially at the beginning. Not everyone is open to talking about things such as gender and race and everything that make us different, but also amazingly unique. I’ve thought at times, am I stepping too far out of this mould that people expect me to be in? But no, these are fundamental parts of my identity that I cannot compromise on.

Photograph: Adam DeTour

“I think belonging is more than just the critical parts of our identity that separate us; it can also be shared interests, perspectives or experiences.”

Finding ways to connect

Something that did help was widening my community bit by bit. It’s really hard to be datapoint one and to create a group without others, so I reached out to others who were in similar positions and learned about their experiences, and also found different ways of connecting with people. Even when everyone on my team was male, and we were not in the same race or age category, there were so many other things we could connect on. So, I think belonging is more than the critical parts of our identity that separate or connect us; it can also be shared interests, perspectives or experiences. Those were really powerful things that I used to build my community.

Diversity was also one of the bigger factors that made me choose to study at London Business School. I wanted to be in a rich environment, learning from people with different perspectives. It was even more diverse than I was expecting. In my study group we had people from all sorts of backgrounds. I learned so much from them and they helped me be more empathetic and better understand that people go through all sorts of unique experiences and backgrounds that shape who they are today.

Embracing change

Overall, I feel that Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in wider society is positive. I think we’re moving in the right direction, partly because higher education is putting more emphasis on it – we’re creating the leaders of tomorrow, and what they’re being taught in classrooms and practising with their peers is what we can expect to see in organisations in the next five years. Graduates will go on to shape values and drive change.

For example, I often noticed a lack of diversity in case work; the protagonist was often male and Caucasian. But more and more we’re introducing cases that are different, with protagonists that students can relate to and see themselves in, which is a great change. I also feel there are more clubs focused on DEI, which is beautiful to see as it helps people to really feel they belong. They’re not just part of a bigger community, they’re also part of a specific sub-community that values who they are and their identity.

Don’t be afraid to change

I think the first step an organisation can take towards DEI is to not be afraid to change things dramatically. Every organisation is on a different part of the curve in terms of how they’re embracing DEI and it can feel daunting for those who haven’t done a lot of work on this, or made it a priority before, to suddenly include it. But you just have to be fearless and go after it, because it’s important. It matters to society, but it’s beneficial to the individual organisation as well. No one likes change and it can feel really difficult to suddenly add DEI to the agenda. But look for best practices; you’re not starting from scratch. There’s a lot of research and pioneers in this area.

I’d also advise considering a bottom-up approach. I think DEI is something that people at any level can contribute to. If people just starting out in their careers can help shape DEI in an organisation, it will make them feel they belong and the new ideas will be beneficial for senior leaders. DEI should not just be an initiative with a check-box. It’s something that organisations should always be thinking about and constantly raising the bar to be better.

I think allies are also incredibly valuable for any group. In order to make change, we need everyone to get behind it. It’s powerful, as a woman of colour, to know there are people who support me. But my mentors haven’t only been other women; I’ve had incredible male mentors as well who have helped me throughout my career; they’ve been strong advocates for women, and they’re fantastic. During my second year at LBS I was Co-President of Women in Business and we had ‘manbassadors’. They would tell me they appreciated the opportunity to contribute as they felt they didn’t know enough about how to offer their support. They became part of the broader women-in-business community, which was great for everyone. I don’t think affinity groups should be about restricting membership – people can still be advocates and building understanding is an important factor in driving DEI.

I heard an analogy recently that puts everything into perspective beautifully: diversity is making sure that everyone has a ticket to the party; equity is making sure that everyone can go to the party (for example, everyone has something to wear); and inclusion is making sure that everyone has fun on the dance floor. How can you not want that? My hope for the future is that every individual will value diversity, inclusion and belonging, and try however they can to create a space that is welcome, because that’s how we’ll generate change in society.

Ina Liu is a consultant with Bain in Boston, Massachusetts

Three tips for change

1. Shift your mindset to be more open

This is the first step to becoming aware and inclusive in your everyday life. It may sound obvious, but it’s incredibly easy to forget or fail to prioritise in the bustle and noise. To keep an open mind, I find it helpful to understand my privilege and challenge my beliefs regularly. Privileges are not necessarily constructed by the individual, but they do affect our beliefs, upbringings and values, which ultimately affect how we perceive others. If we understand our privileges and challenge our existing assumptions and beliefs, we can better understand others and be more inclusive.

2. Build relationships with others

Like most things, we cannot do this alone, which is why it’s important to build with others. When we talk to others we learn what connects us, but if we stay silent our assumptions and biases are the only things we know and the only things keeping us apart. Some of my fondest memories of my MBA were from my time as part of Women in Business, working with my incredible Co-President and our all-star ExCo members. I was challenged and learned a lot about myself, and my world became richer because I was part of this community working towards a common goal. I challenge you to open up to others; just by putting yourself out there and making those.

3. Take it to the broader world

DEI and belonging benefit all organisations and society as a whole. Logically, DEI should be a priority for everyone, not just the HR team and not just the affinity groups. I welcome you to start the conversation, whether at school, at work, or in any group you feel you are a part of. Be an ally of DEI and belonging.

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