Diversity in the workplace

We no longer have to make the case that promoting and supporting diversity in the workplace is an extremely important aspect of people management and, therefore, critical to establishing good work. The vast majority of managers recognise that diversity is all about valuing everyone in an organisation as an individual. It is also accepted by most that, to gain the benefits of a diverse workforce it is critical to have an inclusive environment where everyone feels able to participate and achieve their potential. Although we no longer have to make that case, it is interesting to assess whether a shared understanding exists about what we have all signed-up for.

Unconscious bias

Based on several experiences in recent training sessions, particularly where unconscious bias has been the central topic of discussion, it has been argued that the very word “diversity” can unintentionally help to create the mind-set that separates certain people from others in their own minds. As one representatives stated, “surely it’s not about supporting diversity, it’s about supporting inclusivity.” The point was that “these are slightly different things – diversity, the word, shouldn’t cause problems by establishing the idea of outside groups but it does because people who might not regard themselves as being in any way diverse but regard themselves as normal feel left out of the conversation or feel they cannot contribute to it. The word inclusivity, avoids that happening”. The diverse group attending the training unanimously agreed with this observation.   

This question of social identity theory (perceived membership in a relevant social group) is not new   but this interpretation does pose an interesting challenge – are we taking the definition of words too literally or are we inadvertently creating the barrier we are all trying to avoid? UK legislation covering age, disability, race, religion, gender and sexual orientation among others has been successful in setting minimum standards for inclusion but there is a powerful argument that a truly effective inclusion strategy has to go beyond legal compliance. Its core purpose must be designed to add material value to an organisation by contributing to employee well-being and engagement.


If inclusivity does not become business as usual and is set up as one “initiative” running parallel to, or cutting across others, there is a danger of some people feeling excluded. Research has shown that organisations who do not foster a truly inclusive culture run a serious risk of lower levels of employee engagement (which produces a loss of £26 billion per year in terms of GDP), lower levels of productivity, problems around recruitment, problems around promotion and problems sharing learning and development resources.

This becomes more important when trying to overcome the gender pay gap. Unconscious bias and the resulting stereotyping and the similarity attraction effect have contributed significantly to the problems that are being uncovered by legislation that is forcing organisations to publish data pertaining to this. The pay gap is not the same as equal pay. Equal pay - that men and women doing the same job should be paid the same - has been a legal requirement for 47 years. Under the Equal Pay Act 1970, and more recently, the Equality Act 2010, it is unlawful to pay people unequally because they are a man or a woman. This applies to all employers, no matter how small.

Gender Pay Gap

However, a company might have a gender pay gap if a majority of men are in top jobs, despite paying male and female employees the same amount for similar roles. The Fawcett Society, a group which campaigns for equality, has stated that caring responsibilities can play a big part. As women often care for young children or elderly relatives, they are more likely to work in part-time roles, which are often lower paid or have fewer opportunities for progression.

Discrimination is another cause of the gender pay gap. The Equality and Human Rights Commission (ECHR) has previously found that one in nine new mothers were either dismissed, made redundant or treated so poorly they felt they had to leave their job. This can create a gap in experience, leading to lower wages when women return to work. My own experience as a trade union representative in the 1990’s was one of frustration in this regard. Two female colleagues had worked their way to middle management positions and were on course for progression to senior positions. Both took maternity leave and returned to work in general administration positions where they both remained for several years. At no point were they considered for promotion back to the positions they had held; instead they were treated as if their maternity leave had caused them to forget the skills and knowledge they had developed prior to pregnancy.

The frustration was that this was not a sinister or conscious exclusion – it was, as one senior manager said at the time, that “women coming back from maternity is always in the too difficult to deal with box”. As such, it is hardly surprising that men tend to take up the majority of the most senior roles at a company, which are the highest paid. Many deserve to be in that position but, if the “too difficult to deal with” attitude remains, it will be a long time before the gender pay gap closes and a truly inclusive culture is achieved.        

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