Upon hearing frequent references to the term ‘The Hard to Reach Groups’ in organisational Diversity & Inclusion literature, organisational policy documents and more recently at a seminar on Women in Sports. I was prompted to reflect on why the repeated use of this term jars with me as an ethnic minority female who has managed to eventually overcome some of the barriers to progressing within a largely female, white profession (Human Resources). This is the case for many professions and there are parallel issues for women and in particular BME women (and men) but in particular Muslim Women gaining access to certain professions and employment generally (the most visible of ethnic minority group due to covering of their heads – although there is diversity of practice even in this). Gaining access to certain sectors for example Sports and technology are particular challenges, although their use of technology as evidenced by the ‘Arab Spring’ is giving them a new voice to initiate change in the way they wish to be portrayed and understood. I therefore ask readers to reflect on what unconsciously, be it well intentioned, this phrase reveals about those who utter the phrase rather than those to whom it refers. This is necessary if we are to fully capitalize on the huge potential for instance that Sports has to bring communities together and create wealth and wellbeing.
Those who invariably use the term ‘Hard to Reach Groups’ in everyday language and numerous strategy documents are invariably members of the homogenous, dominant group occupying positions of leadership, decision-making and influence as advisers. The subject group is made up of a number of sub-sets: young mums, students, women in and out of work, school leavers, NEETs, at risk women, Muslim women and females of varying ages and abilities.
Rudyard Kipling’s poem, ‘They and We’ illustrates the need to be mindful that everyone is ‘normal’ in their own eyes or we will not be able to understand them and interact with them. The fact is ‘They’ don’t think we’re normal either. We assume ‘They’ perceive and experience the world the same as we do and accordingly we design systems, processes, policies, interventions and language that reflects us. Which is what the word assume can be broken down into: I assume on the basis of me: ‘Ass-U-Me’.
Given the aspiration is to increase participation in sports, wider employment and representation in positions of leadership and influence. The effect of using the well worn phrase ‘Hard to Reach Groups’ is to alienate those who are under-represented by the underlying assumption that it is ‘They’ who are a problem by being so damn ‘Hard to Reach’. The assumption about ourselves is that we are by implication ‘easy to reach’, accessible and approachable. This further leads to counter justifications for the lack of measurable and visible progress such as: they don’t apply for the jobs or opportunities to participate; they lack the skills, qualifications and experience to hold positions (paid or voluntary) and we (allegedly) only ever appoint on the basis of merit, and so forth. From the perspective of ‘They’ the rationale is: ‘We don’t feel listened to, so what’s the point?’; ‘there’s hardly anyone like me involved’ so I won’t feel welcome or included in the important decisions and so forth. It therefore becomes an issue of the need to be open to the concept of unconscious bias and increasing our own self-awareness – whether you are ‘They’ or ‘Us’ it is important to consider what has shaped our thinking and behavior, what privileges we enjoy and assume others have access to that enables us to have the opportunity to participate and reach our potential but might prevent others from doing the same.
My plea is to ditch this phrase and focus instead on the issue of addressing under-representation. It would enable us to think more creatively in seeking to engage with people who are under-represented for a variety of intrinsic (self-beliefs) and extrinsic (structural) reasons rather than lumping them together and labelling them as the ‘Hard to Reach Group’. Turn the question on yourself and ask what could you do to make yourself ‘easier to reach’, or even better to reach out proactively to engage with others different from you. We need to creatively develop solutions in collaboration with those people who are under-represented so there is joint ownership of the solutions and not inhibit our thinking and actions by labelling and blaming those who are not ‘US’.
Naturally, if any of this resonates with you I would be happy to engage further with you!
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