Is diversity just difference?

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about what diversity really means from an organisational perspective…

So often, the word 'diversity' when used in the corporate world is pigeonholed; reflecting one of the 9 protected characteristics outlined in the Equality Act, with little consideration for intersectionality.

My experience is that many people perceived as ‘diverse’ identify with more than just one characteristic...

And what does it even mean? In what context should diversity be considered? Is diversity at work just another way of describing an individual as different from the majority of the workforce, or should it be viewed in the context of society as a whole?

If a company is made up mainly of women, does that mean that men are diverse? Or if the company’s workforce is overwhelming white, is ‘diversity’ anyone with a different cultural, ethnic or racial background? Or should we be aiming for a fair reflection of the demographics of the society in which the organisation exists? Does that taken into account different types of diversity such as social mobility and diversity of thought?

The word 'diversity' in this context is so often linked to the word 'inclusion' – the two have become intertwined to mean something more than their sum. My interpretation of the word 'diversity' in this context is that it really means 'difference' and inclusion means 'where everyone is welcome'. But confusion abounds - in my experience, the term 'diversity and inclusion' means many different things to different people; sometimes positively, often negatively. There is often a fundamental misunderstanding about why it is important - more on this shortly.

A question I continue to ponder is this; if an organisation fosters a true culture of 'inclusion', can diversity happen naturally (because there is no barrier to anyone at all) or should organisations take further steps to engineer a diverse workforce by the use of employee quotas, and targeted recruitment campaigns? Is this a long game or a short game?

Does positive action work or does engineering diversity inhibit an organisations natural growth? I should clarify that changing the culture of an organisation, to be inclusive (and non-discriminatory) does take a lot of work, and it is absolutely must be a structured effort and will not happen naturally. Rather, once the organisation can consider itself inclusive (and develops and implements on-going improvement programmes) will the diversity of the workforce evolve naturally?

Personally, I do think that organisations have to change the way they go about the recruitment process. So much of it is subjective and arbitrary - most existing structures and processes are extremely biased, unintentionally or not.

I may have way more questions than answers, but what I see on a day to day basis in my work at Inventum Consulting, is that many organisations talk a decent game when it comes to creating diverse workforces and inclusive cultures, but very few actually have a true sense of what it all actually means to them, and how they can mould the conditions where equality becomes a given.

Equality, not diversity

Pay gap reporting has accelerated the conversation about gender. Race and ethnicity reporting are on the horizon soon and after that, I would expect disability reporting to become a requirement too (although to do this accurately legislation will need to change - currently there is no requirement for employees or job seekers to declare disability, race or ethnicity, so how can accurate data be collected and analysed?. I am not suggesting that anyone should be forced to disclose their characteristics but we seemingly can't have one without the other). But to me, all it’s done is bring up a conversation – it has resulted in very little change so far.

It was in 1968 that the female workers at Ford Motor Company in Dagenham went on strike seeking equal pay for equal work. And whilst there is legislation to ensure parity between the sexes for the same work, we don’t seem to have come very far at all. More than 50 years later and women are still undervalued and underrepresented at all levels in the corporate world.

So, what’s the real driver?

Is pay gap reporting a blunt tool? Are organisations driven by fear and risk, when they could/should be driven by opportunity? From my view-point, organisations approach diversity and inclusion from a reputational risk perspective. How can we be seen as being more diverse and inclusive, especially when compared to our competitors?

To me, creating a diverse workforce and having an inclusive culture ensures a healthy commercial ecosystem. A system where different opinions and perspectives are valued, potential solutions and opportunities are considered and appraised, and the best outcomes are identified. Alongside the moral, ethical and societal benefits, we must articulate and loudly proclaim the commercial value of diversity and inclusion. This may well be the real driver of lasting change, where money talks and bulls**t ambles along...

Adam Tobias

020 3008 4335