The Illusion of Inclusion


I was listening to the podcast Leading with Empathy & Allyship, show #83 How to Hurry History: Moving DEI Forward Faster, with Laura Liswood. It turns out that Laura has a new book out, The Elephant and the Mouse: Moving Beyond the Illusion of Inclusion to Develop a Truly Diverse and Equitable Workplace.

Liswood has the kind of background I find intensely interesting. She’s a deep thinker and the driving force behind the establishment of the Council of Women World Leaders. That’s impressive!

The premise of the title is that dominant group (the elephant) knows very little about the minority groups (the mouse). But the mouse, for its own survival, most know a great deal about the elephant. 

In a way, the illusion of Inclusion arises because while the elephant (organisational leadership) may think kindly upon mouse (members of diversity groups), it knows very little about what it’s like to be a mouse. Without that insight, the elephant cannot moderate its behaviour to match intent. The consequence is squashed mice. Nobody wants to be elephant-kill.

Liswood is emphatic:

  • Effort doesn’t always equal outcome
  • Intent doesn’t always equal impact.

A great amount of effort has been expended on boosting inclusion, but the results have been poor. In short, the effort expended, and the intent applied have delivered disappointing outcomes and have had a far lower impact than intended.

The vast majority of people in our culture (this is an important caveat) agree that Inclusion is a good thing. But there’s now a thriving industry of DEI speakers and trainers who are tapping into the good intent, but who are reporting resistance. This resistance is mostly unintentional (and institutional), but there’s an influential minority that is intentionally resistant.

Here are 3 key ideas from Liswood.

Discrimination is a wide and messy field

We tend to think that discrimination is confined to the usual diversity group members (gender, sexuality, race, disability, religion), But not so. You can be subject to discrimination because of height, weight, looks, introversion, personal style and taste, and class – the list can go on. In fact, you can be discriminated against for pretty much any reason other people can come up with.

Why does this matter? In terms of Disability Inclusion, it’s going to be struggle if you have a bunch of other attributes that can give elephant (and other mice) cause to not see you; or want to know about you. 

It is important to remind the reader that ‘discrimination’ used to be a virtue. It meant “having or showing refined taste or good judgement” (Oxford Dictionary). Being thought a discriminating person was desirable. But, almost in a paradoxical sense, we have developed a bias against the word’s original meaning, so that it now has a negative connotation. We have created a short cut from inappropriate discrimination to just discriminationInappropriate discrimination is unjust, unkind, and, in some cases, illegal. 

But, because of the way our brains and language work, it’s easier for us to work with the biased idea. Its handy to keep this in mind because when it comes to discussion about reframing how we think, this example will be helpful.

Staff with disability report being subject to being bullied more than any other group. Bullies target people they perceive to be vulnerable. If you have a constellation of other attributes that also trigger biases, getting a workplace adjustment in place might become a lot more problematic. Feeling as though you are fully included is going to be much harder as well.

I have previously observed that intersectionality is an important idea in Disability Inclusion. Now I believe it is critical. Disability may be the prominent identified personal attribute, but that does not make it the only attribute that triggers exclusion. Likewise, if people with invisible disability possess other attributes that may have already triggered discriminatory conduct, saying anything about an invisible disability may be a step too far.

Bias is a limiting notion

Liswood doesn’t like the word ‘bias’. For her it carries negative and even blaming connotations. This happens when a word is employed to convey negative messages with a moral overtone. A person can be ‘accused’ of bias – and thus its technical or neutral value is lost.

But Liswood opens the concept out beyond its limiting character. Rather than bias, she asserts that we have a cluster of largely unconscious beliefs, perspectives, perceptions, associations, actions, roles, and archetypes that influence our choices and behaviours. I’d add to that list instincts – behavioural reflexes hardwired into our brains. Liswood’s cluster opens up culture, nurture and experience (beyond nurture) to be understood as the constituents of biases.

The Neuroleadership Institute is clear that “if you have a brain, you have a bias.” Our experiences trigger the development of patterns in the brain, which then express in response to cues. Our instinct to not waste energy on consciously processing responses (a high energy consuming process) means that a lot of our ‘thinking’ is condensed into brain energy saving ‘biases’.

A bias is a tool. Using the right tool for the job makes sense. Nobody would want to use a hammer when a drill is needed. These days the relational jobs we have to do are different from the old ones. Now we need to develop new tools.

Using bias in a pejorative way – implying a moral failing – doesn’t help. We are good at seeing biases in other people, and bad at seeing them in ourselves. We are psychologically constructed that way. As they say, ‘people who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.’ 

I think Liswood’s argument for unpacking biases is sound. It helps us understand the constellation of factors that constitute a bias. This is the first step to reframing our biases. Getting rid of them is impossible. But we can reshape them by reforming the input. This is something we do all the time, but hardly notice. Information helps, so does ideas about social values. If we expose ourselves to new information and new social values with sufficient intensity and frequency, we can develop new biases (shortcuts) that better match the values we aspire to.

Part of this concerns having sufficient self-awareness to know when an inappropriate bias is kicking in, or to not be self-defensive when an ally lets us know we are in the thrall of a bias.

The science of human behaviour employs another elephant metaphor – the elephant and the rider. Here the elephant is what is below our conscious awareness, and the rider is what is conscious. The social and moral psychologist, Johnathan Haidt, has described the rider at times as little more than a PR agent for the elephant. By that he means that what we think is reasoned thought is actually no more than rationalization to justify what the elephant feels is true. Hence, we will justify a bias and believe we are providing a rational defence of a belief or action.

My favourite illustration of this is a 1960s magazine cartoon depicting a guy caught in the act in a motel room. The door has been burst open by a Private Eye with a camera and the outraged wife. The guy blurts out, “But honey! I can explain!” Okay, that may have passed for humour 55 years ago, but it illustrates Haidt’s point perfectly.

The uncertain value of knowledge

Liswood describes research that shows that men are happy to know that a policy favouring DEI is in place. They seem content that having a policy is sufficient. Women, apparently, are less likely to end their concern at this point and want to know whether it is effective. I have reservations about such research as a purely gender-based distinction. This may be the case when the policy relates to women. To me it’s more a power group (elephant) thing – though dominated by men. 

The fact a policy has been developed and implemented can seem like a job done. But where does the responsibility for knowing end? The fact that policies are often reviewed only long after they are promulgated in an effort to determine whether they are working as intended suggests that there is no active critical monitoring. A policy promoting gender equity in promotions isn’t working after 3 years? This couldn’t be monitored in real time?

Liswood observes that “the presence of knowledge about others does not guarantee success, but the absence of knowledge guarantees failure.” How the elephant gets to know about the mouse (mice) is another question. The will to know is what I am interested in. A will to know is an expression of active engagement. If something isn’t working, let me know when you know, and let’s do something to sort that.

The disparity between developing and approving policy and monitoring it in practice is well known. I want to use a gardening analogy here to tease it out. If a policy is an action seed, simply throwing it on the garden bed (workplace) and expecting it to grow isn’t enough. For that see to bear good fruit, a lot of gardening is needed. A valued seed is nurtured into fruition.

There is a passage in the Christian Bible that illustrates this point perfectly:

A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants. (Matthew 13 3-4)

If there is a will to know, a way to know will be found. If there is a will to change, a way to change will be found.


The Elephant and the Mouse is a 4 hour and 23 mins audiobook full of deep insights from a veteran DEI advocate. Liswood has a passion to give history a bit of a hurry up. She is prepared to look at the DEI landscape and add her take on things. 

There’s a lot of DEI content that can be regurgitated rote. But it doesn’t deliver any bang for the bucks expended. It assumes the ‘magic bullet’ approach – input rational content and behaviour will change. Research demonstrates, for example, that anti-bias training can often have the reverse impact. The only impact ‘awareness training’ may provide is to make the participants more aware of their own awareness. They may think they are more inclusive, but nothing else changes.

When organisations have limited funds to spend on supporting DEI, the magic bullet approach is the most effective way of getting ineffectual L&D experiences to the most people. That’s true equity, at least, but it doesn’t lead to true inclusion.

In line with the biblical quote above, the solution is to become a constant gardener. Gardeners have a passion to nurture their environment. Resetting your biases can only be a personal commitment reflecting personal insight. For a Disability Inclusion advocate, this is something that allows the person you want to enlist as a DEI ally to frame the challenge in a way that strongly connects to their heart. 

I find the story of Liswood going off to interview women presidents, prime ministers, and heads of government and ending up being the co-founder of the Council of Women World Leaders inspiring. A small act of inquiry generated an unexpected outcome. It shows what one mouse can do – give birth to an elephant.

Her deep experience tells her that “the Illusion of Inclusion” does not have to remain as a mirage forever on the horizon of our aspirations. We can make it a reality faster if we act with knowledge, insight and passion.

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