Are we really too ‘woke’?

The principles of fairness, opportunity, tolerance and respect for difference, aren’t just important social values but have real importance in the world of work.

However, we continue to see an ‘anti-woke’ pushback, confused by some conflicting perspectives. When EDI is being challenged on the basis that it is unmeritocratic, burdensome, constraining, or just political correctness characterised by ‘woke-washing’, we have to reflect on what is happening. 

Language used in this space is constantly being reshaped. The term ‘woke’, whose original meaning was about being awake to social justice and equality, is now being used by some pejoratively. Organisations from universities, policing, the BBC, the National Trust, and the NHS to the Civil Service and others are increasingly being told they are ‘too woke’, as is sometimes our own profession. This is ironic given so many of these organisations are trying to address past criticisms of uniformity, lack of representation, or genuinely discriminatory cultures. 

The issues are further confused by an apparent ebbing of social liberalism which over the past couple of decades has been pushing for more tolerance, equality and respect, strengthened by the voice of the younger generations. Now, sadly, we are seeing growing intolerance to differing viewpoints, and emerging cancel culture and identity politics. This is a challenging context for businesses to navigate. 

It would be hard to argue that EDI has gone too far from the perspective of actual evidence of progress. But there is something important in recognising the need for balance - something I wrote about here in October 2022.  

EDI must be anchored to real business outcomes, otherwise it will face resistance and won’t be sustainable. Organisations should clearly articulate what’s important to them, what their goals are with EDI and how they are evidencing progress. For instance, showing how inclusivity widens recruitment channels, leverages different experiences to drive innovation, creates workforces that reflect the customers they serve or communities they’re part of, and creates environments where people feel safe and can give their best. Importantly, this also supports positive societal outcomes by increasing work participation and opportunity. Businesses can do well by doing good.   

Perhaps organisations have lost some sight of this in trying to analyse and accommodate so many differences, producing data on different demographics and social preferences without clearly saying why it’s important or what we can do about it.  

In all of this, there is a social contract between employer and employee about supporting and treating individuals with dignity and respect but also expecting that people will align to shared values and principles around respect for all. It’s not so much about expecting to bring our whole selves to work as bringing our whole professional self to work. An important balance to be understood in every organisation. 

In these ways we can make EDI a shared agenda for all stakeholders, whatever language we use, and key to making work work for everyone.

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  • I agree with the sentiments here, however there are multiple things I have noticed. There does seem to be a swing leaning more towards trying to rectify past issues. For example, the EDI team where I work has pushed for the Christmas party to become the annual dinner dance. Whilst this itself is not an issue, the argument that 'it offends people who don't celebrate Christmas' was used as the reason for the change.

    This turned out to be untrue. We have a diverse mix of religions, and they seem just as baffled by the change. They are not offended. One even asked the question 'If we have to remove Christmas because its not celebrated by all religions, do we have to stop referring to Eid?' which is a very intriguing question.

    That's why I agree with Peter. A balance does need to be agreed to make an organisation run smoothly, otherwise the EDI makes certain people feel less equitable, and less included in the workplace. I do not feel that this has led to an 'anti-woke' movement, but i do understand that whenever significant change is made, it is met with frustration from all parties.

    On a final note, there is a sense of perceived slights, especially with the younger generation of workers. A miscommunication, or difference in opinion can lead to people feeling 'attacked' when in actual fact, it is simply freedom of speech. What I would clarify here is that 'freedom of speech' is not 'freedom of consequence' and that needs to apply to all parties to ensure the equitable society that we are striving towards.