‘A hand gesture that involves rotating your wrist externally as your thumb, index and middle finger unfurl open.” Do you know what it is?
That is the name sign for US Vice President Kamala Harris. Name signs, also known as sign names, are an important component of deaf culture. They provide deaf people with a way to identify themselves and others in conversation, while also representing “a Deaf person’s membership in the Deaf community.”
The selection of the name sign for Kamala Harris was itself a process done by the community which was inclusive and diverse. Five women- Ebony Gooden, Kavita Pipalia, Smita Kothari, Candace Jones and Arlene Ngalle-Paryani — as Black and Indian members of the “capital D Deaf community”* — felt it was important that the selection of Ms. Harris’s name sign be the result of an inclusive and democratic process. Given that Vice President Harris was the first female vice president, as well as the first Black and Indian candidate to fill the role, they agreed that her heritage should inform that process, the women recalled in an interview using interpreters.
How did we pick this particular sign name? I want to explain briefly about Kamala Harris. She did ask people to use her name, Kamala, because it means a lot to her. “Kamala” means a lotus flower. I will explain briefly what a lotus flower means. Purity. Enlightenment. Rebirth. A lotus flower has strong roots that can bore through dirt. The flower shows its beauty when it blooms. I am making it an analogy with Kamala, who appears in the midst of a dark and divided America. She brings enlightenment and purity. Rebirth. Why do we use three fingers? It’s because she is the first Black, Indian, and female, and it is represented in the three fingers that bloom. She’s not the “first” but has “three firsts.” Kamala!
-Explanation on the name sign
A name is an identity. It doesn’t matter which language, spoken or sign, native or acquired. A name marks the place of shared culture, of shared values. Deaf people have become more engaged in the process of selecting name signs for hearing politicians and well-known individuals. It is a way for people to acknowledge those individuals “and show alliance with them,” said the article in the New York Times.
You create a language to stand in and not out, to come together. You create a name sign to be understood, to include diversity and in this Independence day edition of Habits for Thinking, I want your attention on embracing diversity at workplaces. Embracing diversity in a culture depends on how we think and act.
In today’s Habits for Thinking, the focus is on leaders who are increasingly working on diversity and inclusion at workplaces, especially gender diversity. Gender diversity is being seeded through several corporate policies. The workforce is growing with more diverse recruitments, the first step in bringing in diversity. Recruitment needs to be followed by adopting diversity across the organisation as a part of regular life. Providing support facilities to attract and recruit like extended leaves, child care support etc is the easy part of encouraging gender diversity. The tougher part is to genuinely embrace diversity as a culture of the organisation. An embraced diverse culture means everyone has a voice to share, everyone feels heard, everyone belongs to the community equally and everyone becomes responsible for the diverse culture to grow. It is only when people are heard and own a share of voice is when there can be a real growth, growth of people, growth of the organisation and growth of diversity.
Diversity is accepting the diverse opinion and thoughts in a culture. But how does a culture embrace diversity? The culture, unless it is a startup venture, has been around for years, even before the diversity policy came in. To make room for diversity, the culture needs to evolve and that can only happen through a mindset shift of its people. The mindset change has good news and bad news. The bad news is that it is far tougher to achieve behavioural change than creating support facilities. The good news is more and more people are open and ready to be guided for the shift. All it takes is a leader to walk the path of embracing diversity. A leader shapes the culture and the culture can be chiseled through three essential tools to embrace diversity:
1. Show, don’t tell to address diversity:
Telling people to embrace diversity is not enough. The leader has to show the action by designing processes that bring in change. The processes that are aligned to the mission of diversity drive should be measurable. One must remember, what gets measured, gets done. Showing is not only restricted to action and processes, showing through visuals is critical too. Women are called ‘the invisible workforce’ both at home and at workplaces. In large organisations, to enable women to step up for leadership roles, it is important to create opportunities to showcase the faces behind the work. It is infectious, it inspires others to step up and makes everyone feel heard.
2. Language to weave diversity in the culture:
The language that the leader uses acts as a moral compass for the people, influencing how they think, act and feel in different situations. An article in Harvard Business Review talks about how languages shape the organisation. The article states, “Your influence over the behavior of your people is not limited to carefully-prescribed internal communications; it lies in the daily sentiments, conversations and values you share. The best leaders understand this — like Horst Schulze of Ritz-Carlton, who shaped his employee’s decorum and conduct with “We’re ladies and gentlemen serving ladies and gentlemen.” These leaders used simple, highly motivating and prescriptive words that set the right cultural permission for their organizations. This language, carefully articulated and shared, offers rich opportunities to codify and crystallize what your company is about, and what your company seeks.
3. Shift mindsets through nudges:
Gender Diversity is a fundamental need. It is not only about following a mandated policy. It is a war against generations of societal biases that have made the gap so wide and so large that it is difficult to be ironed out. Deep rooted attitudes about the role of women in society leads to biases like availability bias where you think and react to a situation with what is available as an easy information in your mind. This bias gets ironed out by a disciplined mindset shift. You work on your habits to change your attitude. Behavioural nudges work as reminders at the appropriate time to help in changing habits and behaviours of people, organisations. Read more about nudge here in an earlier article written by me.
A diverse team of women came together to bridge the gap between deaf and non deaf community by assigning a name sign for the first woman of color Vice President. Using the first three fingers they not only designed her name sign, they showed the path that the bridge of inclusion and diversity can be made through language. All we need to do is consciously change our habits to think and act in the right manner.
*(a term used by some deaf people to indicate that they embrace deafness as a cultural identity and communicate primarily through ASL)