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Episode 23: Diversity Training

I know it's going to be bad when the lovely Pam, from HR, apologies in advance. It is, she whispers, part of the big push into government and local authority contracts. Diversity training is a must, Sir Arthur Minton is insisting on it and without some evidence that we've made some moves on it there's no chance of those big bucks government IT disasters (sorry, contracts), coming our way.

So, here we are, me, my team and Pam all sitting and listening to our diversity trainer Mostyn Bostyn-Clarke. He's 40ish, well-spoken, well-groomed and into the 10th minute of introducing himself. After the nasty incident with the motivational speaker Pam has made all of us promise to behave. Which we are. Most of us are still awake even.

Finally, after the longest introduction any of us have ever heard, Mostyn pauses for breath. 'Any questions?' he asks.

Rice raises a hand. Pam looks anxious already. 'So, do you actually work for the civil service?' he asks politely.

Pam looks relieved.

'No,' Mostyn tells us. 'I'm an independent contractor hired by DiverseConsult to deliver hands on training to organisations in need of sensitivity training and consultancy.'

Another hand goes up. This time it's Colin. 'Does that mean that DiverseConsult are a government department.'

Mostyn smiles at us pityingly. 'No, of course not. DiverseConsult are sub-contracted to UK Diversity Training, which is based in Boston.'

'I used to live in Boston,' Colin tells us. 'But then I moved across to Skegness for a while and…'

Mostyn cuts him short. 'Not Boston in Lincolnshire, Boston in Massachusetts.'

'So, UK Diversity Training is an American company?' Rice asks.

Mostyn nods. 'And before you ask, they're not part of the civil service either.'

We all look confused so Pam does the decent thing and asks the question for us. 'So do any of these companies or organisations have anything to do with the civil service?'

'Not directly. You see we're all approved suppliers of sensitivity training, so in a sense we're approved by the civil service for helping people in your position tackle your institutional prejudices.'

'How do you know we've got any?' asks Kevin.

Mostyn does his pitying smile again. 'You have,' he informs us all, 'and that's what we'll discover once we start. Which we ought to be getting on with.'

'One more question,' I say. 'Did Sir Arthur Minton ever sit on the committee that approved these suppliers?'

Mostyn's smile wavers for a second. 'Actually, I think he might have,' he admits.

'And is he connected to UK Diversity Training?'

Pam is the one who answers. 'I think he's on the board of the parent company, based in the Cayman Islands I believe…'

Four long hours later and patience is wearing very thin. We've listened to Mostyn droning on for what seems to be forever. Any time that one of us makes a comment we're picked up for using culturally loaded terms, cultural insensitivity or one or more different and nasty isms. It's got to the point where no one is willing to say anything in case we're condescended to, preached at or attacked.

It's late into the afternoon and Mostyn has reduced us to absolute dumb silence. We have no opinions, no comments, nothing. And it's getting him worked up. He wants blood, lots of it.

'And look,' he shouts, 'look at this vile and obnoxious document! I've never seen such a concoction of racist, sexist, ageist language in all my time. It's concrete evidence that your organisation is institutionally racist, sexist and ageist.'

He's so busy waving the document that none of us can see what the offending article is.

Pam, who looks visibly shocked now, asks to see what it is. For a minute I hope that it's not one of Kevin's creative masterpieces (like his novel the Sperminator).

'It's one of your project documents,' Mostyn announces. 'The Dynamic Mail Filterng and Archiving System, to be exact.'

We're all stunned into silence. It's a technical document. How the hell can that be full of racist, sexist or ageist language?

'Er, can you give us some examples of this horrible language,' I finally venture.

Mostyn is beside himself now. 'It's full of it,' he insists. 'For example, it's full of talk about blacklists and whitelists. Now, if that isn't institutional racism what is it?'

'But those are generally accepted technical terms used when filtering spam. It doesn't refer to a particular race or ethnic group,' Alison explains, 'it refers to spam email addresses versus safe email addresses.'

'But why is black bad and white good?' Mostyn demands. 'They're value judgements. And look at this, why does it say here that members of the blacklist have a value of 0, and members of the whitelist have a value of 1? Why is the whitelist worth 100% more than blacklist?'

'Actually 100% of zero is zero,' Rice points out.

'Don't try and use logic to avoid the issue,' Mostyn screams, his eyes starting to bulge dangerously.

'But we're software developers,' I point out, to murmurs of agreement from the rest of the team. 'Our software uses the blacklists and whitelists that our mail admin people have created. They maintain the list, we just use it.'

'Then they're racists!' Mostyn declares, his nostrils flared aggressively. Spittle flecks the corners of his mouth. Sweat furrows his angry brow.

'Joe,' Pam asks me, 'who is it that's created these lists?'

'It's Kanye Nju Bowi,' I reply. 'But he's in Ghana for a couple of weeks to see his folks. I'm sure when he gets back you can spend some time with him to get him culturally trained in dealing with race issues.'

Mostyn is momentarily speechless. 'But what about the rampant sexism?' he demands, switching target.

'Examples?' we ask in unison.

'It's here,' he tells us, holding the same document. 'In the appendix. What's this Dolly Bird system? The name alone is demeaning to women.'

Pam looks shocked again. 'Dolly Bird? Joe, what's this about?'

Alison grins. 'That's my idea,' she explains. 'Dolly is a name of a piece of software to clone disk images. It's a way of backing up disks full of files. The name comes from Dolly the sheep; the one that was cloned. Bird is just the name of some software I wrote that makes use of the Dolly system. It stands for Backup, Information, Records and Data. As I'm the one who wrote it I must be guilty of demeaning myself. But I can tell you it's not half as demeaning as listening to this tripe.'

Mostyn looks stunned. 'But this document is pornographic in its content,' he insists, but somehow he's sounding less confident.


'It's just full of suggestive sexual content. Master/Slave dicks, Client/Server relationships, it's just one long list of sexual innuendoes.'

'Master/Slave dicks?' Pam asks.

'Did I say that?' Mostyn asks. 'I meant dicks not disks. Sorry. Dicks not disks. No, I mean disks. Not dicks at all. No. Sorry, it was mention of Apache Struts that threw me there.'

We all look at him suspiciously. 'Come on,' he insists, 'tell me that the name doesn't conjure up certain images…'

'Such as?' Pam asks.

'You know, Red Indians. Strutting around suggestively…'

'I think they're called Native Americans,' Rice tells him.

Alison starts giggling. She's looking at her PDA. Very generously she passes it around. It takes a second to get to me but it's worth the wait. There on the screen is a web page that features dear Mostyn, wearing a Stetson and not much else, on his hands and knees and looking up pleadingly at another man sporting a Native American headdress and not much else. The pages that follow explain in graphic detail what images the phrases Apache Struts, Master/Slave and Client/Server mean to Mostyn.

The session ends quickly after that. Mostyn tells Pam that we're a very sensitive and culturally aware team and that he'd clearly not understood the technical content of our documents. After that he's off, out of the building as quickly as he can go.

We're just sorry for the next bunch who have to go through the same rigmarole as we do.

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