Despite huge strides forward in terms of building a more equal society, there are still many groups of people who face discrimination and barriers to professional success. Women are still underrepresented at the top of business, making up only 26.9% of FTSE 100 boards, while less than 50% of people with disabilities are employed. Racial minorities in the UK are more likely to be underemployed, and less likely to be promoted than their white counterparts, even though BAME groups are in general more qualified than white ethnic groups. This is unfair and unjust, first and foremost, but it also has a harmful effect on business and society. Most people would agree that everyone should have equal opportunities regardless of their skin colour, social background, sexuality, etc, yet many groups still face harassment in the workplace, unconscious bias and systemic exclusion, despite legal protection.
In the UK, the nine “protected characteristics” set out in the Equality Act 2010 are:
- gender reassignment
- marriage or civil partnership (in employment only)
- pregnancy and maternity
- race (including ethnicity and nationality)
- religion or belief (including a lack of)
- sexual orientation
It’s illegal to discriminate against someone on these grounds, yet widespread inequalities still exist. Businesses have an important role to play in addressing this challenge.
A work culture that creates a hostile environment is damaging for the individuals involved and the business. This can range from an environment that prevents individuals feeling comfortable fully expressing their full identity, such as their sexuality or hidden disabilities, to outright harassment and bullying of minority groups. Individuals from diverse backgrounds can be inhibited from reaching their full potential in their career because of the behaviour of others, including unconscious actions or those that stem from ignorance. This can lead to psychological damage to individuals involved and can contribute to them leaving that business. A hostile environment can be created by:
● Outright harassment, bullying, abuse or discrimination based on characteristics (this can also come from clients and customers)
● Failure from management to address this abuse
● Pressure on individuals to ‘conform to the norm’, by hiding features/aspects of identity that differentiate them from the dominant group, eg middle class, traditionally masculine environments, the country’s dominant religion
● Casual comments, jokes or teasing, microaggressions, ‘banter’, or unintentionally hurtful comments
● Refusal to accommodate different requirements, such as time off for religious holidays
● Exclusionary social events e.g. observant Muslims may feel uncomfortable socialising in pubs
● Discussions around private lives that do not conform to the norm being seen as inappropriate or unprofessional, e.g. a gay man talking about his partner compared to a heterosexual woman discussing her male partner.
Discrimination also stems from structural issues which fail to minimise unconscious bias or unintentionally favour one group over another.These usually manifest in people hiring and promoting in either in their own image, or based on preconceived notions of what makes a good employee. For instance, some women can face barriers to promotion due to them being perceived as uncommitted employees due to long periods of absence taken to look after children. Removing these barriers requires a holistic approach that can address ‘the way things have always been done’ to reach a system that does not hinder particular groups unfairly.
Many countries have legal provisions that address instances of discrimination and harassment, such as the UK Equality Act of 2010. Businesses need to be aware of the characteristics that are protected by law across different territories and what practices are defined as illegal. However, legislation does not cover all aspects of diversity. For instance, UK law does not address discrimination relating to class and socioeconomic background, travelling lifestyle (although Irish and Romany travellers are protected under laws against ethnic discrimination), weight or personality type. It also does not adequately address the intersectionality of the multiple characteristics that are addressed. Diversity is about embracing difference, recognising and valuing the contributions of all groups of people. Research by McKinsey found that the top 25% of businesses for racial and ethnic diversity in management were 35% more likely to be above industry means for financial returns. Further benefits include:
● Better outcomes for innovation-focused tasks
● A wider mix of talents, ideas and perspectives
● A greater understanding of the values, expectations and preferences of all their stakeholders
● Access to a wider pool of labour from which to recruit and retain staff
● Confidence within the staff that promotion is based on merit, which helps retain talent.
Further difficulties and challenges can arise when efforts to tackle inequality and promote diversity in support of one group come at the expense of another group that also faces barriers. The CMI reported that 42% of those surveyed in their Delivering Diversity report believed that prioritising gender had become a barrier to progress on racial diversity. Focusing on one characteristic is not enough by itself, and viewing diverse identities as mutually exclusive is also problematic. Recognising the intersectionality of diversity and discrimination is important in addressing this, as it acknowledges that individuals have multiple identities which affect their experiences and how they interact with efforts around diversity and inclusion. Care must also be taken to ensure groups are not siloed into certain professions, departments or levels of seniority, such as women in caring roles, or men in senior management positions. Balancing all these aspects can be challenging, and there is no silver bullet or one-size-fits-all approach. Despite these challenges, there is much that business can do to improve the status quo. Examples of positive business actions may include:
● Setting objective job specifications and selection criteria within a job advert
● Not asking for age or other identifying details on a CV (blind recruitment)
● Engaging staff in the issue through training, communication and encouraging discussion
● Assigning responsibility to key individuals or teams, e.g. all team managers
● Career development schemes to develop the talent pipeline, e.g. formal mentoring or sponsorship
● Enabling flexible working arrangements e.g. work patterns to accommodate religious commitments or easy physical access to workspaces for disabled staff
● Communicating policies on diversity and monitoring implementation across the whole organisation
● Establishing procurement policies for support services or in the supply chain which help to promote diversity, e.g. giving preference to social enterprises that deal with social exclusion
● Outreach to traditionally marginalised groups outside of the organisation, e.g. work experience opportunities for marginalised students, advertising jobs in non-elite universities
● Developing the talent pipeline for minority groups and opening channels for their career development
● Promoting diversity within the board of directors and senior management team
● Considering seriously whether certain qualifications are actually needed for the job
● Considering life experience to be equivalent to a degree.
Addressing these barriers is by no means straightforward, and can be a contentious issue. Implementing successful policies requires the buy-in of the whole workforce, who otherwise may feel resentful of the perceived favouring one group over another, as, arguably, has been demonstrated at Google. Fundamental improvements in diversity are unlikely to result if accurate, relevant data is not collected and analysed. Measuring and monitoring allows businesses to identify successes and failures and thus areas that need attention, monitor the outcomes of interventions, and engage the workforce in improving policies and procedures.