Inclusivity is a word that dominates the public conversation, but it doesn’t always translate into cultural change. We spoke to an expert to find out how to develop our awareness, and hear one woman’s inspiring story of transforming the fashion industry…
Sinéad Burke was merely eleven years old when she made one of the most important decisions of her life. Given the option of having limb-lengthening surgery which could give her 3-6 inches of height, she decided against it, believing she shouldn’t have to change herself to make people like her.
Nearly two decades later, and her philosophy is still as resolute today. The Irish lecturer, disability advocate and self-described little person has never let her achondroplasia (the most common form of dwarfism) to hold her back from achieving her goals, as she explains in the latest episode of the Stylist podcast Nobody Told Me:
In fact, Burke believes that her disability has been the driving force behind her accomplishing her dreams. On her first day of school, she explained achondroplasia to her classmates, and worked toward her ambition of becoming a teacher with the love and support of her average-sized mother and siblings, and father, a fellow little person.
It was Burke’s love of fashion, though, that catalysed her current trajectory. Thanks to her fashion industry-focused blog, Minnie Mélange, her advocacy for inclusive design gained a platform; and in September 2016, she was invited to partake in the White House Design For All event by the Obama administration. On that same US trip, she was scouted for TED, and her subsequent 2017 talk, Why Design Should Include Everyone, catapulted her to international acclaim.
Burke soon became an icon of inclusivity, from sitting in conversation with New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern and representing Ireland at the World Economic Forum in Davos, to attending the 2019 Met Gala in custom Gucci and fronting the cover of the Duchess of Sussex’s Forces for Change issue of Vogue. And this year, during lockdown, she published a children’s book, Break the Mould: How To Take Your Place in the World, encouraging every child to embrace the special things that make them who they are.
Burke’s journey has been far from smooth sailing, though. In a world that frequently overlooks disability and is quick to judge her appearance, she’s no stranger to a lack of inclusivity. “As a little person, I spent a lot of my life with other people assuming a narrative for me about what people in my body get to do,” she told Stylist last year.
Which is why it’s essential that we start practicing inclusive actions in our daily lives. To help us get there, we spoke to Sheree Atcheson, the Global Head of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at Peakon, and author of the forthcoming diversity and inclusion guide Demanding More, to find out the positive steps we can take towards promoting inclusivity, and creating lasting change.
1. Develop your empathy
“This may seem like common sense, but be human-centric and remember that the world doesn’t revolve around yourself. Spend time understanding how the world and society treats people from different backgrounds, ethnicities, disabilities, genders, neurodiversities and so on, and internalise that in your thinking.
“It’s key to remember that intention and impact are two very different things. Just because you are well-intentioned, it doesn’t mean that your impact is good. If you do something that misses the mark, listen to that feedback, be empathetic to that person, and be grateful that they’ve given you this teaching moment so you can do better in the future.”
2. Understand your privilege
“Speak up and speak often. Do not leave this to marginalised people to do. Understand that power means you have access to something that likely gives you one of the biggest privileges you can have – being listened to.
“Being listened to means you can influence, affect and push for change for all people. And again, if you genuinely care about inclusion, you must care about redistributing power and its impact to all people – not just those who you may identify with.”
3. Recognise your bias
“We spend time thinking before we make decisions. Biases and assumptions are rooted in us taking shortcuts and relying on stereotypes as a way to group people together. We must stop doing that, and we can only do that by stopping, thinking and then moving forward.
“We should listen to varying perspectives and insights from people different to us so we can be aware of how something may affect others in a way that doesn’t affect us. Without this education (and regular education), we can’t challenge biases because simply, we’re not doing the work we need to.”
4. Be proactive
“Questions are important. Being curious is important. That’s because it gives us extra understanding that we don’t have before. What I will say is that Google is free and before you go to someone who is marginalised to answer your questions, go to Google first. Many people will write about their experiences and have written things online that will answer your questions, without the burden of answering (and potentially reliving painful experiences or trauma) falling on one specific person.
“I would suggest you actively commit to reading different materials on inclusion, anti-racism, allyship and privilege awareness, sharing this knowledge with your friends and family, holding them and yourself accountable. Sign up to things like Better Allies’ weekly newsletter, which will provide you 5 ally tips per week, and easily showcases things you can do differently.
“Follow different industry-leading DE&I (Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion) leaders online on social media who can shed a light on what they’re doing, and why. A great place to start are my Forbes articles which break down different inclusion initiatives, and how to make them successful.”
5. Stay curious
“Being inclusive is absolutely a process. There is no silver bullet. To stay on course, you must embrace this journey. Embrace that no one knows everything and that you must be willing to be wrong so you can learn and be better in the future. It means we have to be willing to really challenge some of the very ingrained sexist, racist, homophobic or ableist mindsets and ideologies that we’ve grown up with, or that are shown to us regularly in the media.
“We must remember that inclusion is different for different people – what is inclusion for us, may not be what someone else needs. I would ask people to actively seek knowledge and understanding outside of their own lived experiences, so they can advocate and push for inclusion for those they do and don’t identify with. If we don’t do that, we just form exclusive inclusion – and that isn’t inclusion at all.”
Nobody Told Me… is Stylist’s podcast exploring the personal life lessons of brilliant women in their own words. Season two is brought to you in partnership with Clinique, who for over 50 years have been empowering women through great skin care backed by dermatologist expertise.