Sana on inclusion

sana on inclusion

Sana Sellami 
Untitled Workers Club inclusion and diversity specialist. She's a mother of 4 and lives in Antwerp since 2005. Sana has guided multiple organisations in becoming more inclusive. Some of her references include: Royal Belgian Football Association, Deloitte, VDAB & ThinkPink.

Inclusive communication will help your brand and society moving forward. Find out why:

You sound kind of Dutch?

Spot on. I was born and raised in the Netherlands. I have lived in Antwerp for 15 years and yet that Dutch accent lingers. I grew up in Huizen, a small village near Hilversum. I have two younger brothers and two wonderful parents. I really owe a lot to my parents.

Did your parents have a dream for you?

You often hear or read in the media that parents with a migrant background do not support their children enough, don’t take enough responsibility and are not involved enough in their school career. Me and a large-scale survey by the VUB disagree (laughs). I am convinced that every parent wants the best for their child, but not all parents have the (right) resources — financial, network, skills or self-confidence — to fully support their child. Other research confirms that there is no difference in terms of parental involvement. The difference lies in the lower social economic status and poverty of opportunity.  [1]
My parents have always been actively involved, even though they couldn't help me with my homework, for example. They knew you had to get good grades, do homework, work hard for what you wanted to achieve and pursue your dream. They taught me a lot, but what they gave me is determination. They told me to press on. Even though it was sometimes difficult, they always stood there with the words, ‘You can do it. We believe in you.’ This has largely put me where I am in my life. I wanted to prove to them that I could actually do it.

And then you fell in love with an Antwerp native?

When I was 18, I got married and moved to Antwerp. A big change, as a young girl moving to a big city I barely knew. One of my childhood dreams was to become a lawyer, so when I moved, I immediately enrolled in law school. I stopped after about five weeks. I just didn’t understand the language that was spoken. I had one subject, sociology, that interested me enormously. So after those five weeks, I decided to enroll in sociology.

You even did your Ph.D.?

Sana: Right. I got my master's degree in Sociology and a PhD in economic sciences. And in the meantime, I was raising four more kids. Young, married, four children. People sometimes ask me, "How do you do that?" Quite frankly, there's no secret recipe. I am grateful to Allah every day for where I stand and what I have.   


"Don't try to change someone else's mind. Instead, help them find their own motivation to change"– Adam Grant

Have you been faced with prejudice?

Yes, recently. I was ready for a new challenge and started conversations with some companies. During one of these conversations someone told me that despite my good resumé it would not be easy to find a job. I thought she was referring to fewer job opportunities due to corona. After all, we were in the middle of the lockdown. As it turned out, she was referring to the fact that I have four children.  

How do you deal with prejudice?

At times, it made me feel insecure, humiliated, sad or angry. I understand, especially when you encounter such prejudice time and time again, you react with frustration. My response is to make people aware of their own biases. In the example I just gave, I calmly replied: ‘You assume that certain functions are not for me because of my kids and not because of skills?’

Doesn't everyone come into contact with prejudice?

As people, we tend to form an image of someone very quickly. A series of experiments showed that humans need barely 100 milliseconds to form a first impression of someone (Janine Willis and Alexander Todorov). The problem is that the first impression is not completely correct. First impressions, prejudices, stereotypes; all these things have consequences on how we interact with each other. It is important to be aware of this so we do not act accordingly.
Unfortunately, certain groups in society are much more likely to be confronted with certain prejudices, which makes them less likely to be given the benefit of the doubt and more often to prove otherwise. Today, for example, ethnic minorities, women and LGBT people continue to be discriminated against during application procedures and in the workplace. For example, gender stereotypes are firmly entrenched in our behaviour patterns and in how we have set up society.

Do you feel like you've had to fight harder because you're a woman?

Some things certainly didn't necessarily make it any easier for me: wife, Muslim, foreign roots, mom of four children. But that's because of how some people look at it: they see this as an obstacle or not fitting within their organization/structures.
For me, these are really not things that have stopped me from pursuing goals. Quite the contrary. However, it is not because I 'made it', that it is feasible or easy for everyone.

And how do you feel about headscarves?

A headscarf is often still seen as a symbol of oppression (rolls her eyes).
I believe that the expectations within society today are an obstacle to being oneself for some women and girls. If we want to pursue inclusion, then being able to be oneself is one of the most important things we should strive for. For example, by banning a headscarf, you not only send a signal that certain aspects of their faith do not deserve a place or attention in society, it also limits a person’s chances of education, work and therefore self-development. You can't do that, can you? Surely, no one should have to make the choice between studies, a job or (part of) their identity?


When did you decide to go all the way for inclusion?

Diversity has become a buzzword. With me, there has always been a (first a small and then larger) voice that wanted to work towards a society where everyone feels accepted and valued for who they are and where everyone has the opportunities to develop in their own and full way. I prefer to speak of inclusion rather than diversity. During my time at the Centrale Raad voor het Bedrijfsleven (Central Council for Business) I noticed that I missed out on really working on change. My subsequent jobs are therefore entirely devoted to diversity and inclusion in society. I also work as a lecturer at Thomas More. Last semester I taught social psychology there. Again, I couldn't put my inclusive glasses aside.
By not only teaching theory,but also giving examples, I try to make my students aware of (important) social/psychological mechanisms.
Is diversity more than ancestry?

I can really answer that with a resounding ‘yes’. I think too many people too often approach diversity mostly from an ethnic or gender perspective. Diversity goes much further. It is about differences in terms of gender, culture, sexual orientation, religion, background, character, etc. As an organization, it is therefore important to pay attention not only to the visible differences (such as gender, ethnicity, age) but also to identify the invisible differences.

So what is the difference between diversity and inclusion?

Inclusion goes a step further than diversity. The term inclusion refers to how you deal with differences and similarities. By recognizing the uniqueness of each individual, by valuing each other, creating a place where each can be themselves and feel safe and respected. So inclusion means including everyone, both the majority groups and the so-called minority groups.
Diversity is a fact of life and working toward inclusion is an action to make it happen.

Are companies and institutions open to including inclusion in their communication strategy?

I think there is definitely an openness and awareness among companies and agencies. More and more companies are aware of the changing society and are considering how to respond to it. Whether they consider this a priority or not, that's another story. They are also often not yet aware of the approach needed to reach and authentically appeal to the various target groups. Does inclusion then mean reaching everyone?

No, that's where the mistake often arises. You have to see inclusive communication as a marketing approach in which you try to communicate within your target audience as inclusively (broadly) as possible. You don't and can never reach everyone. Some target audiences just aren't intended for a particular product or service. What is important, however, is not to exclude anyone who does belong to your target audience.
So with inclusive communication, as a brand you should try to also make room for voices that usually go unheard. This way, you can break through prejudice. By bringing thoughtful content, you as a brand can create positive social change.

Haven't we already taken a lot of steps in image building?

Authentically inclusive communication goes beyond image building. Yes, there needs to be more visibility of underrepresented target groups. But expressions in terms of language, for example, are also essential. We need to reflect on the use of images, words and concepts that are outdated or become less relevant in a super-diverse society.

And perhaps to conclude, what is your life goal?

My life goal? I don't have an absolute life goal. However, I will continue to work for impact and change. Impact for me has to be measurable and powerful. It is about both social and individual impact. Helping someone move forward, leading the way to a better future and hopefully helping to bring about structural positive changes.

[1] In the book “Schaarste” (Scarcity), Shafir and economist Sendhil Mullainathan outline how poverty affects our thinking and actions. Scarcity, says Shafir, takes hold of our brains. Whether it's time, money or calories, it seems as though we can only think about one thing. We develop tunnel vision and focus only on the urgent. Important but not top-of-mind issues disappear into the background.


I'm Gwenn Nevelsteen,

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