Visibility is the key to supporting invisible diversity

Earlier this year, a news article emerged about a trial in London for “Please offer me a seat” badges. For people who have invisible disabilities, which make it difficult for them to stand for long periods of time, these badges are intended to help them access seats on public transport. Almost 90% of disabilities are invisible (Australian Network on Disability). Invisible disabilities that potentially make standing on public transport difficult include chronic medical conditions such as chronic pain, balance difficulties and cancer (including the side-effects of chemotherapy).

Since reading about this story, it’s made me think about Australian workplaces’ approach to supporting invisible disability, and invisible diversity more broadly. In addition to some disabilities, invisible diversity can include diverse sexualities and gender identities and linguistic and cultural diversity. Although many Australian organisations are proactive in supporting workplace inclusion of diverse groups, many inclusion initiatives tend to focus on visible sources of diversity, such as gender, or accessibility for individuals with visible disabilities. While there is clearly more to do to support these groups, more and more Australian organisations are also becoming proactive in their inclusion of invisible diversity. A key example can be found in the space of sexual orientation and gender identity. 

Workplace inclusion of sexual orientation and gender identity is often described as a ‘litmus test’ for an organisation’s overall commitment to inclusion of diversity in general. Aside from (generally unfounded) concerns regarding customers’ reactions, an important reason for this focus is the fact that many LGBTI people continue to feel the need to hide their identities at work, and so some employers fail to recognise the relevance of LGBTI initiatives to their organisation. Specifically, a 2015 Australian survey found that 29% of sexually diverse people are not out at work, and 10% feel that they expend a lot of energy hiding this part of themselves, in order to fit into their work environment (Australian Workplace Equality Index (AWEI), 2015). 

Of course, it is not immediately apparent to others exactly what it takes for an LGBTI person to hide this part of themselves. In order to begin to understand, we might look at all the ways in which the sexuality of a person in a significant heterosexual relationship is on display to their co-workers. These potentially include engagement and wedding rings, family photos in their office or on their mobile/laptop home screen, conversations about family, weekends and anniversaries, referring to their husband or wife and bringing their partner to work-related events. Now imagine the burden of constantly editing conversations and dodging questions, and the overall toll of having less authentic workplace relationships for fear of a co-worker finding out. Unfortunately, this is the reality for many LGBTI employees who feel apprehensive about the consequences for their career and workplace relationships if they were out at work. 

Organisations have more at stake than they realise in their efforts for workplace inclusion of diverse sexual orientations and other forms of invisible diversity. Not only is employee engagement and productivity potentially hindered by individuals’ attempts to conform with society’s ‘norms’, organisations can miss out on the advantages of higher performance and greater innovation that come with an inclusive culture, which capitalises on its diverse workforce. And the worst part - employers don’t even know when this is happening. 

A manager might be supportive if they knew about an employee’s invisible diversity, but it is near impossible for the employee to know this, unless their manager explicitly demonstrates their support (i.e., by expressing their support for inclusion initiatives and calling out negative comments or inappropriate jokes targeting diverse groups). If managers are to convince their co-workers to share their invisible diversity, then they need to show visible support for workplace inclusion – regardless of whether they are aware that they work alongside invisible diverse group members. Managers must also be supported by organisation’s declaring their support for all diverse groups, including those which are less visible, and designing their processes to be inclusive.

Diversity Inclusion would love to hear about your experiences and thoughts on invisible diversity in the workplace. Please leave us a comment.


This blog was written by Meredith Lillie, who is currently completing a placement at Diversity Inclusion, as part of her Masters of Psychology course.

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