The Inclusion Paradox

by Sophie Lord

In 2024, the words ‘equality’, and ‘inclusion’ seem to crop up everywhere. They are used in either side of political debate – to both encourage, and resist change in the advertisements of large corporations, daily language and discourse. Overwhelmingly, this marks a positive change – the very existence of this terminology demonstrates we are heading in the right direction for better inclusion. Upon closer inspection though, it is still primarily those who are privileged making key decisions.

In the beauty and fashion industry, marketing and advertising campaigns have attempted to appeal to all groups in society yet have often only reinforced harmful stereotypes. For example, household brands like Nivea and Dove have faced backlash for advertising campaigns in the past. In 2017, Nivea removed a deodorant advert for its tagline ‘white is purity’ due to obvious connotations with white racism and white supremacy. The statement released by Nivea afterwards confirmed that instead, diversity and equality are key values of the company.

Marketing teams are aware that they must be active in their commitment to these values. The March 2024 cover of British Vogue for example, of ’40 iconic women’ is an admirable effort at capturing the diversity that underpins the talent of the industry. However, reading Edward Enninful’s editorial explaining the front cover, his reasoning behind it is all the more compelling. Enninful notes that this photoshoot is representative of behind-the-scenes change at Vogue, in that real change has taken place because an effort has been made to include voices from underrepresented backgrounds in their team.

This is an incredibly important point. Broad, vague notions of inclusion, equality and diversity are only performative if this structural change is not happening. There is little value in a photoshoot such as the March 2024 Vogue issue if women of colour continue to feel excluded within the working environment of the magazine, or don’t progress up the career ladder. This concept – the paradox of inclusion – is argued in a recent episode of The Polyester Podcast by writer and editor Funmi Fetto. 

Fetto argues that big companies and co-operations often use diversity as a selling point without any real desire to enact change. To illustrate this, she uses the example of a make-up company releasing foundation shades for all skin tones – something that should, of course, already exist to cater for all people who consume the product. Some companies, such as Rhianna’s Fenty Beauty have from the start, had their product made in all shades. Though this move makes the company more accessible to people of colour who wear make-up, Fetto warns that this can sometimes be a performative move. Research by McKinsey & Company shows that only 4-7% of beauty brands in drugstores are black-owned businesses, demonstrating how the space is still dominated by privileged groups. 

If the power structure behind large companies fail to include anyone from marginalised groups, it is pointless. At Sephora, just 6% of leadership roles are filled by black people, and at Glossier, black people hold none according to Vox. A brand cannot truly call themselves inclusive if people of colour are not a part of the decision-making when they at the same time are consumers of the brand.

This is an issue which can be observed across most institutions in society, such as workplaces, schools, and universities. Due to the increase in accountability, and equality policies and procedures, an effort is made to be more diverse. However, for those who are brought in as part of these efforts, it is not always a positive experience. There is the risk of impostor syndrome: of feeling out of your depth, and like an outsider, even if your role is completely within your capabilities. Often, impostor syndrome is caused by the internalisation of society’s misconceptions, which are typically classist or racist – subconsciously convincing yourself you are not worthy of something you are.

This dichotomy of impostor syndrome and inclusion is something I experienced during my Undergraduate degree. I attended the University of Oxford, which was an amazing experience and one I am immensely grateful for, as I am indebted to the access and outreach schemes that hugely helped with my application. Specifically, Oxford’s own access project UNIQ empowered me and other state-school students to realise our potential to actually apply. Through lectures, practice interviews, and discussions with students, we were all given the knowledge that would aid a successful application, emanating the privilege of our privately educated peers. 

As I say, the opportunity to study at such a world-renowned institution was truly incredible. I benefitted from Oxford’s increased commitment to inclusion and diversity – the number of state-school students who are admitted each year is going up and up. However, I struggled a lot with impostor syndrome. I was shoulder to shoulder with people whose parents have Wikipedia pages and family who attended Oxford before them. I found myself in some conversations where I felt completely like an outsider, as people name dropped the private schools they went to and the tube lines their houses are on. As a student journalist, I wrote in great detail about this experience for Cherwell Newspaper.

Photo of University Buildings provided by Sophie Lord
Photo of University Buildings provided by Sophie Lord

My experience was not unique and demonstrates what I’ve outlined in this article. Undoubtedly, companies and universities making an increased effort to be inclusive, and representative is a good thing. However, this must not be tokenistic and performative – by contrast, the support for people from marginalised groups in these institutions must be continued. At university, I advocated for increased welfare support for those suffering with impostor syndrome (who are predominantly, working class) because it is necessary they are supported and feel welcome in their environment – otherwise, shifts towards inclusion and equality are only half-hearted efforts.

© 2024

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