A few weeks ago, I was co-presenting a leadership and diversity programme with my colleague Chris Markiewicz, during which we asked the participants to reflect on the nine protected characteristics defined by the Equality Act. “Why stop at nine” I asked, what would you make number ten or eleven?
Their responses were almost as immediate as they were unsurprising. One man, exceedingly tall, stood up and suggested “appearance”, another quietly added “shyness”. And so, within a minute or two a list of personal characteristics was compiled as differences that could be acknowledged in equality legislation but are not currently.
I was reminded of this yesterday when I saw the The Sun newspaper. They decided to use their front page headline to make fun of Roy Hodgson (the new England football manager) because of his speech impediment, doing so on the first day after his confirmed appointment. The headline stated ‘Bwing On The Euwos’, relating to the European Championship. Does Mr Hodgson warrant being teased in this way – of course not. Has the editor any idea whether it causes him offense or upset, probably not. Does he care, certainly not.
Today the same paper printed, again as a front page special, that ‘Jonathan Ross, the TV personality, laughed off the Roy Hodgson speech impediment row last night, saying: “It’s not a big deal”’. He too has trouble pronouncing his Rs like the new England boss. Mr Ross suggests that this should be taken in the fun spirit intended. Perhaps Mr Hodgson is more sensitive. Certainly I know other people with similar difficulties who are acutely embarrassed by their impediment, which impacts upon their daily existence. For them it’s definitely no laughing matter.
I wonder if The Sun would still behave in this way if it was deemed illegal under the Equality Act? I wonder if those who were on the Equality Edge leadership programme last month and any others who feel thus inclined could write to their MPs suggesting appropriate amendments to the Act.
We try to embrace diversity and difference in our modern societies; building environments of tolerance and acceptance, where people are not intimidated by being different. The media must play a positive role in this. But if The Sun chooses to turn someone into a victim of their editorial independence then they will be damaging our diversity cause. Unfortunately, I have yet to see this issue being addressed by the Levison Inquiry set up to examine the culture, practices and ethics of the media –surely this is the kind of press behaviour that should be included.
For us as individuals, how many times do we do what The Sun does – teasing individuals because of their difference. Are our workplaces safe for people to authentically express their individuality, with the safety that they will not be teased or laughed at, openly or behind their backs. I hope so, but what do you think?