top of page


  • Writer's pictureFletcher Consulting

Several years ago, the adult child of a family friend came out as nonbinary and asked everyone to use they/them pronouns for them. As I discussed this development with my daughter, I kept messing up by saying “she.” My daughter patiently corrected me every time.

I was embarrassed. I’m a DEI professional, I thought. How can I be so incompetent?

I was experiencing an especially stressful moment in any learning process called Conscious Incompetence. We map it on a slide we show at the end of most of our workshops. It shows a diagram of escalating levels:

Unconscious Competence --> Conscious Incompetence --> Conscious Competence --> Unconscious Competence

I explain this journey with the example of learning to drive a car.

Riding in the backseat while my parents drove me around, I didn’t give much thought to how it happened. I was incompetent, but I didn’t know it: Unconscious Incompetence.

I still remember the first time I got behind a wheel, though. I had studied the traffic rules, but once the car started to move I was overwhelmed. I became keenly aware of how much more practice I would need to be safe on the road: Conscious Incompetence.

And that first time on the highway, trying to merge? My heart was pounding. How did people do this every day?

A few more tries and I started to feel competent. But I couldn’t relax because I was reminding myself to check the mirrors, look at the speedometer, monitor my distance from the car in front of me, and breathe. I was in the Conscious Competence stage.

Today I can spend a day in the car running errands, talking to friends, listening to podcasts, and daydreaming, while navigate the quirky streets—alongside the unpredictable drivers—of Massachusetts. My brain has moved into the Unconscious Competence phase. This phase doesn’t mean we are “perfect” but we are comfortable, relaxed, able to correct mistakes and adjust as needed.

We go through these phases with everything we learn, including DEI issues. Nobody is born knowing everything about our diverse world, so it’s not our fault that we are unconsciously incompetent. Then we discover—often through a mistake—that we have a hole in our knowledge or skills. “I didn’t mean to offend you!” we exclaim as we step into that next, very vulnerable threshold when our incompetence is visible to us, and to others.

A mistake is an entry point into consciousness.

It helps me to manage my defensiveness to remember these steps when this happens. A mistake is an entry point into consciousness. As Maya Angelou said, “When you know better, do better.”

And we might as well get used to the pattern, because as competent as we get in one area, something will come up in another to show us we have learning to do.

Practice will eventually make those habits as unconscious as a day of driving in Boston traffic.

  • Writer's pictureFletcher Consulting

Your children don't lose out when other people's children get what they need

“I don’t believe you can have equity and excellence.”

This quotation—in the middle of a story on GBH radio about my town’s schools—made me sit up straight. Apparently, parents in my town want to reverse course on the equity initiatives that our public schools have been investing in. Even liberal bubbles have dissenters.

(Though it turns out that the speaker, Ashley Jacobs, isn’t a neighbor at all; she is the founder of a Massachusetts-based anti-DEI group called Parents Unite. But the segment implies that her organization is offering support to the local pushback.)

Whenever I hear stories of liberal parents resisting equity work, I wonder what pushes them over the line. At what point does someone who votes for equal rights broadly pull back their support for them in their own community? Why do some people feel that their children lose out when other people’s children get attention?

I understand the parental drive to want the best for your child. We want our kids to move up, whether you’re the first in your family to go to college or a fourth-generation Ivy grad.

Perhaps we sometimes forget that our public schools are supposed to provide that opportunity for everyone.

I see the same tension within organizations adopting DEI initiatives. They may have an anti-racism statement on their websites, but I’ll still hear someone in a hiring meeting, when an applicant’s racial background is mentioned, say, “Shouldn't we just hire the best candidate?”

They are echoing Ashley Jacobs: equity somehow precludes excellence.

So how can we answer that?

Quite simply, it’s been proven false again and again. When Harvard Law School admitted women in 1950, there were no bathrooms designated for women. After petitioning the Dean, the women were allowed to share the janitor’s bathroom in the basement of Austin Hall.

That inequity—along with countless other barriers, small and large—has been changed. And you can’t tell me that women lawyers have contributed nothing to our society. A few of my personal heroes have served on the Supreme Court.

I’ve seen it play out in my own family. One of my nieces was diagnosed with dyslexia at age 5 and received targeted assistance to help her perform at her best. She was an honors student throughout junior high and today she is thriving at an elite high school. Equity led to excellence.

The same is true in the workplace, as shown in study after study pointing to diverse teams coming up with more creative solutions to complex problems—and boosting the bottom line.

Our workplaces and schools alike should not be measured by whether a handful of the most advantaged are able to get farther ahead, but by the sum of their members’ accomplishments.

When those who have been held back by bias or difference can be brought to their full potential, everyone benefits. In that sense, too, equity leads to excellence.

I think my town’s schools are excellent because of the equity initiatives underway. I’m glad the majority of my neighbors and leaders enthusiastically agree.

  • Writer's pictureFletcher Consulting

I’ve written about the time I went to a client’s office just after I broke my leg, when I couldn't get into the bathroom because there was no way to open the door while on crutches. Frustrated, I looked around and noticed there were no gender-neutral bathrooms either.

I brought this up to their DEI lead. She lowered her voice.

“I know,” she said to me quietly.

“But the most embarrassing thing is that we just built a new building in another city with the same problems—no accessible or gender-neutral bathrooms. Brand new. We haven’t even moved in yet!”

I was shaking my head along with her.

“I asked someone in human resources about it,” she continued, “and they said that the operations people didn’t even talk to them. Either their team or mine would have brought these issues up if we had just been asked.”

I was remembering this exchange recently when working with another client: Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge.

They’re a cemetery and a garden, a National Historic Landmark, an “urban oasis” full of peaceful greenery and historic monuments.

They’ve embarked on a visioning process as they approach their 200th anniversary. They’ve hired landscape architects and architects to help, of course. But they also want to put a DEI lens on all of it.

The space is free and open to the public every day of the year—but is it truly welcoming for everyone? Looking around, you see groups of mostly older, white women enjoying the gardens. Why are other people in the neighborhood walking by the gate?

I am excited to be working with them. I can see their process is inclusive, which is the key.

It’s about hearing from different people inside your organization, from different levels and different backgrounds. Whether it’s through a survey, affinity group interviews, or general focus groups, your people can tell you what they need and notice if you create a space and ask them. You can take a similar approach to information gathering with neighboring individuals, organizations, and associations.

As I was walking the grounds of Mount Auburn Cemetery, making observations about signage, languages, and accessibility, I was grateful to be working with them on a visioning process that employed a DEI lens from the beginning.

And I remembered the client with the brand new building without inclusive bathrooms.

They evidently missed this step.

And so did the building’s designers. An architecture firm should have an internal DEI function—if not a full department, at least a checklist. If you’re designing for people, shouldn’t you be thinking about the needs of all people, not just those who are able-bodied and cisgender?

If you’re designing for people, shouldn’t you be designing for all people?

bottom of page