Diversity and Inclusion – Are We Getting It Right?

I recently saw Admissions, a play by Joshua Harmon about the struggles of a prestigious private school to attract students who differed from the usual white, privileged background. The Head of Admissions, a woman dedicated to furthering her successful track record of upping the school’s diversity statistics, opens by sternly admonishing a teacher for not including enough pictures of the few African-American students in the school brochure. She feels frustrated with the teacher because she simply does not understand how important it is to attract students from under-privileged circumstances. The teacher says she’s overworked and it’s hard for her to understand because she doesn’t see colour, she just sees people. Besides, she’s confused by what the Head of Admissions means when she says that the students she photographed are not “black” enough to support her campaign.

The staged photographs create an illusion of happy, diverse students, excelling in a welcoming and supportive environment where liberal principles of equality have succeeded.  The well-intentioned Head of Admissions is fixated with increasing the percentage of African-American students attending the school despite it being revealed that, being in the minority, their experience is not one of inclusiveness but instead of isolation.  We learn that, despite the glossy campaigns, an African -American teacher has not yet been promoted whilst his white counter-parts have, and that the Head of Admissions’ son is struggling to come to terms with what he sees as positive discrimination in favour of women, especially when he sees them getting the jobs that he had assumed were his already. “It’s not fair!” he screams at his parents.  An idea proposed by the play is that no matter what our policies are, some prejudices are so deeply ingrained that we may not even be aware of them until something drastic happens, like our children do not achieve what we thought they were entitled to. Then principles fly out of the window. After all, talk is cheap. Although well written policies and glamorous brochures look good, they all have a superficial glean when behind them is a desire to further one’s career instead of just listening to and responding meaningfully to the human experience of exclusion, unfairness and the brutal reality of being poor in the USA.

African-American characters in the play are talked about in the third person and make no appearance in person. Their voice is left unheard and only reported by the white, privileged characters on stage. It was glaringly obvious that at the only table where crucial decisions are made, there is no space for anyone other than rich, white men. The audience is left wondering what is going wrong.

What is Diversity and Inclusion?

The corporate world has, in recent years, attempted to level the playing field and parallels can be drawn between Admissions’ interpretation and our real-life use of institutional policies to encourage diversity and inclusion. The goal of diversity and inclusion in the workplace, or in any institution, is to create an environment in which every person can fulfil their potential, irrespective of their innate characteristics.  The differences amongst employees are viewed positively because they will enhance the overall, collective performance.  Our society is made up of individuals who identify with different groups, whether they are cultural, socio-economic, gender based, or several others and a person may identify with many different groups. This is a difficult concept to grapple with subjectively, let alone objectively and in researching the effect of diversity and inclusion on performance, psychologists have acknowledged that as individuals, we have different experiences of the world which form our perceptions. For example, a white woman’s experience and perceptions are different to a black woman’s; two men may have different perceptions about the performance of the only woman in a team. Is she raising her voice in a meeting because she’s a rude, aggressive and demanding career woman or does she feel she has to make her voice heard because she’s the only woman in the room? Against this background, it’s difficult to define what we mean by ‘diversity’ with any real precision. Inclusion, however, is about participation which is free from the limits of prejudice.

The Need for Diversity and Inclusion

The usual yardstick for measuring how diverse a company is by how many female directors are on the board. According to a report by PWC, fewer than 25% of the seats on the board in the S&P 500 are occupied by female directors. By July 2018 in the UK, the number of women directors made up 29% of FTSE 100 boards which was a significant increase from 2010 (12.5%)[but slower progress is being made with the participation of women directors in the FTSE 100 executive management where in 2017, they accounted for on average, 19%. Most private companies and public institutions in the UK are now obliged to report the gender pay gap which compares the mean salary and median bonus of male and female employees. What they confirm is that female GPs are paid 33% less than male GPs, female graduates are paid less than male graduates for a full decade after graduation, and whilst there are differences between sectors (construction and finance companies have the widest pay gaps), they all favour men in terms of the median hourly pay gap.

Several factors could explain the gender pay gap. A study by the Equality and Human Rights Commission found that women are more likely than men to occupy low paid jobs, work part-time hours and have a shorter job tenure than men. This is linked to family responsibilities as woman tend to take more time off than men from work for this purpose. Industry gender segregation is explained by societal factors and beliefs about which roles are more suited to women and many of these factors also explain why the gender gap becomes wider as women and men age. The statistics present a working environment in which the career progression of women becomes stunted from the age of forty, most likely because of the factors highlighted by the study as well as discrimination.

Pay gaps are also significant between people with disabilities and those without (both physical and mental) and even more so between men and women with disabilities, as well as between British white employees, British born ethnic minorities and the worst off being immigrant Pakistani and Bangladeshi women. A key theme in these studies was access to education, recognition of qualifications and English proficiency which determined access to higher paid, full- time work. Discrimination was also a factor. Progress is being made but there are still major institutional obstacles which prevent the goal of diversity and inclusion from being fulfilled. Ultimately, they indicate that the decision to include somebody is influenced by whether they are marginalised by society at large, their access to fundamental resources such as education and the traditional beliefs relating to the place of women, non-British people and those with disabilities.

Some of these societal and institutional factors were encountered by The Harvard Business Review. In research which found that board diversity is important for increasing productivity and better decision-making, this only makes an impact when the culture and method of communication is egalitarian and encourages all directors to talk openly about diversity and inclusion. Those with the power to make real changes in this area however, feel uncomfortable discussing race, probably because they haven’t put themselves in the position of how it feels to be from a background different to theirs and the challenges that can accompany that. Diversity is not just about women, it’s about several characteristics such as ethnicity, sexual orientation, disability and education, amongst others, and it follows that managers might also feel uncomfortable talking about those issues. They are faced with a whole range of potentially sensitive conversations such as adoption leave for employees in same sex marriages; the needs of transsexual employees in the office; racial and sexual discrimination as well as mental health issues. I know personally, how uncomfortable my manager felt discussing the time I had taken off whilst grieving the traumatic death of my father and the times I had experienced prejudice and exclusion as a young woman working in a heavily male-dominated environment.   Employers need to ensure that these conversations are conducted appropriately and comfortably for all involved. [

If you fall into any of the categories referred to in those studies, their conclusions probably didn’t surprise you. That’s because those disadvantages have always formed part of your life in some way and probably influenced how you viewed the world. The other thing you know is that prejudice is felt, not necessarily expressed. It’s the lack of engagement with you for no obvious reason; it’s having to work twice as hard to get half the recognition; it’s never being picked to head up a project and it’s voicing an opinion which is ignored and sometimes, belittled. There’s often a justifiable reason for it which sounds like it could be sincere but it’s insidious and exhausting and at a certain point, you wonder why you are wasting your time and talent in an industry that doesn’t appreciate you. Effective diversity and inclusion policies tackle those problems and they are needed to shift perceptions and experiences which prevent minority groups from accessing possibilities that have until now, been reserved for an elite group of people. If they can do that, then our businesses work better, our creativity can flow freely and conflict within institutions can be resolved more purposefully.

The Challenges of Diversity and Inclusion

Institutions across the UK and probably world-wide, have a long way to go before reaching such an ideal. Directors tend to view it as advantageous to seek out more diverse candidates because they perceive that they will bring more innovation, better conflict resolution skills and in general, improve the performance of the business. However, the procedures used to recruit board members are not aligned with that view, mainly because they are recruited from a pool of current or retired board members according to traditional criteria.[ Instead, companies should focus on meritocracy which emphasises talent and achievements instead of nepotism. The definition of diversity tends to focus on traits of a person at birth and encourages a tick box attitude.  An approach which considers several areas of diversity should be proposed instead to increase the chances of a broad-minded take on these issues. Criteria to consider might be education, living and working abroad or dedication to charitable endeavours.

Another challenge lies in the use of corporate style policies to implement diversity and inclusion strategies. These are often self-regulated and respond to legal obligations such as the need to report on gender pay statistics. They are usually under-funded, lack expertise and focus on recruitment, training and promotion and view diversity as a problem that needs to be solved when instead “it should be about “opportunity”- specifically growth opportunity,” argues Glenn Llopis in Forbes. [ He believes that people should be at the focus of any business and that leaders have to concentrate more on listening to their employees and acting accordingly to inspire respect and real change. This should be at the forefront of their mind instead of aiming for an award for their work, internal recognition and marketing opportunities. Leaders must champion a mindset of diversity and inclusion to influence others and that actively means confronting prejudice and making room at the table for a whole range of different people.

Fact and Fiction

The ending of the play (spoiler alert!) culminates in the Head of Admissions’ son refusing to attend an Ivy League college after his parents had obtained a place for him through their contacts. He had been rejected from his initial choice and after throwing a hysterical fit ending in the confession that he believed he hadn’t been accepted because he is not ‘diverse’ enough, he decides to attend a community college instead. In a poignant scene, he declares that he wishes to embody his parents’ beliefs and if they are going to make a difference, he must give up his privilege to somebody who needs it more than him. His parents are horrified.  They had worked so hard to get to the top and that comes with certain advantages such as useful contacts. Privilege is comfortable and sometimes pleasurable, something which those that have it are blissfully unaware of because they have always had it.

Diversity and inclusion policies done badly, reinforce these principles and keep the elite comfortably at the table whilst those who are struggling to get there (white, male, female, black or otherwise) are likely to lose faith in initiatives which reveal a lack of understanding or purpose.

Statistics are just numbers. There is an argument for targets because knowing whether we have achieved our goals is a good way to measure progress, especially in the corporate world. However, getting more women through the door doesn’t address the problems they face long-term such as the glass ceiling, how they are perceived after child birth, the pressures on them to conform to a masculine world made by rich, white men for similar men. The same can be said of ethnic minorities and people with disabilities. I have seen far too many people approach meetings about diversity and inclusion with their performance review in mind and with the intention of raising the company profile or their own, within the company. The issues discussed don’t go anywhere near some of the real problems faced by women, men, ethnic minorities, LGBT employees and those with disabilities. They focus on what is comfortable to talk about and the voices of those who are worst off – such as the Colombian cleaners on minimum wage – are not even whispered.

At its core, diversity and inclusion is about seeing all employees as multi-faceted human beings and not as numbers and categories. It’s about having a real dialogue between those who have power and those who don’t. Striving to create an environment in which each person is valued in the same way and has access to the same opportunities and resources is not about writing something interesting on a CV. It’s about having an open discussion where managers are not fearful and nor are employees, to express their concerns. Most of all, it’s about creating room at a table, not because you are forced to but because you genuinely see the benefit of different voices and opinions and the valuable skills they bring. For companies to achieve this, they must see employees as human beings with strengths and vulnerabilities, no matter what their circumstances are. That takes a commitment to one’s own personal development which is necessary or anybody considering a career managing people in any capacity.   

What Institutions Can Do

Prejudice is a perception which is not based on any material evidence, real experience or logical reasoning.  The way you get rid of it is by listening actively, being aware of your thoughts and actions and using empathy to try and get a glimpse of what it must be like to be excluded from mainstream ideas of acceptability. Institutions can empower their leaders and employees to speak freely about their needs and interests and not feel threatened that it will be held against them. A diversity and inclusion policy is not about brown-nosing your way up the career ladder but about valuing human experience and the wealth of ideas, feelings, decisions and impact they can have on business and society at large and part of that is re-evaluating the structures of our institutions. A hierarchical system is likely to view those at the top as the elite and those at the bottom as inferior. This can replicate those societal structures that enforce the idea that positions of power are not available to certain people. Most of all, employers need to put themselves into the shoes of their employees and continually ask whether they are listening adequately, whether they are responding meaningfully and what they hope to achieve.

Real, meaningful change shakes up establishments. It challenges our position in the world, our view of ourselves and the direction we thought we were going in. Things that we believed we were guaranteed are no longer certain. Societies experienced this when women were given the vote, when African-American and South African civil disobedience shifted people’s place in society. This kind of monumental overhaul cannot be achieved by a boardroom of directors but it can take small, significant steps to stimulate an environment which has no place for prejudice in any form.


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