Unless you’ve been off-grid for many years, you’ll probably have heard talk about Equality, Diversity & Inclusion or EDI for short. There have been TV programmes, films, books, magazine articles and millions of words expounded on the subject.
But what does it all actually mean and who are we trying to ‘include’? More than that, why do we want to include them? Is it ‘political correctness gone mad’? Because HR would like it? Good for PR?
Well, no. It isn’t any of those things.
Of course there’s a moral imperative, but there’s a measurable and significant business imperative too. Although the data is still often imprecise, there is undoubtedly a trend that indicates that organisations who are better at EDI are also better performers in the market (see this McKinsey report). Many other studies have show a causal link between diversity & inclusion and the quality of decision-making, such as this one from the CIPD.
Inclusion is ultimately about attracting and unleashing talent, gathering different perspectives to solve wicked problems, creating a collaborative culture and driving innovation. It’s about attracting the best range of people and it’s about everyone feeling included so that they can bring their whole selves to work and perform at their best.
When people talk about inclusion – and also when you read much of the material and commentary on the subject – you could be forgiven for thinking it is all about gender equality and ethnicity. Now those things are clearly very important aspects of equality, diversity and inclusion – but they’re not the whole story. I want to open up the conversation about some of the other, less explored aspects.
What about the inclusion of other ‘diversities’?
- Life experiences
- Social backgrounds
- Thinking styles
- Sexual identities
- Skillsets and disciplines
- Physical abilities
Each of these brings a different ‘lens’ through which to explore an issue. Each has particular perspectives on a problem, a set of circumstances or an idea. For most commercial organisations and many public sector bodies, this range of diverse groups and others are the users, customers and opinion-formers that shape perceptions of your organisation and may dictate its future success.
They are also often an untapped talent pool, a source of radical ideas and a major contributor to your ability to innovate and to address complex and wicked problems.
So why should they be ‘included’?
There are three main arguments: moral, business/financial and legal. Let’s examine aspects of each of them in turn. This piece by no means purports to be exhaustive or definitive, merely an illustration and I’m only addressing some of the groups listed above due to time and space constraints. I leave it up to you to extrapolate and extend from your own knowledge, perspectives and context.
The moral argument
In a modern, enlightened and affluent country, the exclusion of any group from opportunity, self-efficacy and access to the development of their skills, careers, lives and aspirations is very clearly unfair and unequal. There are many institutional and historical barriers to inclusion – lack of role models and representation in many fields or at higher levels, unconscious biases in recruitment, working patterns, job design and organisational culture – and sometimes still some conscious bias too. The rise of populist and right-wing movements – and the influence of social media platforms throughout the Brexit fall-out and the tenure of Donald Trump - has given some racist, sexist, xenophobic and homophobic elements and views a platform - and the increased confidence to exploit it. High-profile events such as 9/11, the London Bombings, the ‘war on terrorism’ and others have given those with a certain mindset the opportunity to label some religions as inherently ‘evil’, often with the encouragement and apparent support of populist media. On the other hand, those who take a secular perspective are also perhaps disadvantaged by latent influences of the church on many aspects of society. The aspect of religious belief or non-belief is too large for this article and I will leave it for another day. Taking some of the others:
For those from socially disadvantaged backgrounds, they remain excluded from many walks of life and much opportunity - including higher education, which then makes it significantly less likely that they will progress to jobs at higher salaries – effectively fixing them in place. In our top 50 universities, figures from 2019 indicate that less than 5% of entrants were from what they euphemistically call ‘lower participation areas’. Across the whole university population the number rises to 11.4%, showing that even those who make it to university are likely to remain restricted to those institutions which probably won’t give them access to the upper echelons of career and society. They are several times more likely than those from higher socio-economic groups to lose their jobs, stay unemployed, use foodbanks, become homeless and suffer from a range of health problems.
For the disabled, things are even more constrained (by the way, I myself have a disability and am the son of a man who was paralysed by polio in action during WWII – I find the term ‘differently abled’ mealy-mouthed and patronising and so choose not to employ it here, in case you were wondering). UK Government statistics indicate that around 82% of people are in employment (Aug 2020) while only 54% of the disabled are employed. Research by the TUC in 2019, shows that disabled employees were paid on average 15.5% less than their non-disabled counterparts.
Under the definition of ‘disabled’ in the Equality Act – where the person has a physical or mental impairment, and that impairment has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on the person's ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities – there are currently more than 7 million people in this group in the UK – and they spend more than £80 billion a year. A very substantial market and a talent pool that is often ignored or marginalised. More on that subject later. The size of the group also suggests that almost all of us will have a friend or family member with a ‘disability’.
For those from an LGBTQ+ group, the salary differential is even higher at some 17% and, like the disabled, they are far less likely to be considered for promotion or selected during recruitment in the majority of organisations. While there are a few sectors where being one of the LGBTQ+ group can be considered an advantage, in the vast majority the door is firmly and often quite subtly shut.
If we now extend this argument to include neurodiversity, we find a polarisation – largely according to the nature and impact it has on capability, personality and performance from the perceptions of those in the predominant ‘neurotypical’ group. Like disability, the group who fall under the banner of ‘neurodiversity’ is far larger than might be imagined – almost 10% of the population. However, the term comprises a range of different diversities, including Asperger’s syndrome, Dyslexia, Dispraxia, ADHD, OCD and others on the Autism Spectrum’.
Members of this group with whom you will probably be familiar include Charles Darwin, Jerry Seinfeld, Albert Einstein, Emily Dickinson, Michelangelo, Richard Branson, Temple Grandin, Chris Packham, Greta Thunberg, Bill Gates, Billie Eilish, Alan Turing, Emma Watson, Steve Jobs, Whoopi Goldberg and Henry Ford. Not too many under-achievers there.
Many of the greatest breakthroughs in modern science, society and technology have been achieved by the neurodiverse – in part precisely because of the advantages that their neurodiversity conferred upon them. Yet they remain a marginalised group in many organisations or sectors.
Their neurodiversity can be viewed as a potential superpower, but, like those in all these groups, they suffer from being seen as DIFFERENT – particularly different from the norm group who set the shape and attitudes of most organisations.
Society is structured largely around historical perceptions and assumptions of what is viewed as ‘normal’ and anyone from outside these norms is therefore labelled, marginalised, ignored or even deliberately disadvantaged. We tend to fear difference and want to be surrounded by those who are just like us.
Is that right? Surely it cannot be.
This catalogue of exclusions is simply immoral and unintelligent. It is neither fair nor reasonable. It is not even in the best interests of those doing the ‘excluding’.
Let’s consider the second argument: the business and financial implications.
In the UK alone:
- Disabled = 7 million
- LGBTQ+ = 2.5 million (but biased towards the younger ages and biggest spenders)
- Neurodiverse = 7 million
- Socially disadvantaged = 25 million (those from the two lowest socio-economic classifications)
If one considers these groups alone, it represents over half of the UK population. Imagine the market value of that group. What about the talent pool it represents? Imagine the impact on diversity of thought, of approach, of experience, of perception, of ideas, of innovation and of solutions to a problem. The financial implications are literally immeasurable. It makes real business sense to increase inclusion and none to avoid it. We need to identify and remove the many barriers to inclusion that society – by which I mean those in ‘charge’ who set the rules and design the system – which means leaders and therefore many of us who are reading this piece – has built up over centuries. Many of those barriers are in the minds of the majority group and we need to create a diverse group to think it through and guide us in what we should create.
Finally, we have the legal argument, which is in many ways the simplest.
It is illegal in the UK to discriminate on the grounds of any ‘protected characteristic’.
Currently these are: age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, race, religion or belief, sex, pregnancy/maternity and sexual orientation. While this does not cover every group I’ve mentioned, it does the majority. I’m not claiming legal expertise here, this is just an indication to make the point. The protections conferred under the Equality act of 2010 include the illegality of discrimination in terms of dismissal, employment terms and conditions, pay and benefits, promotion and transfer opportunities, training, recruitment and redundancy. Financial penalties can be very large. One employee who won a case at an employment tribunal in 2020 was awarded £400,000 in respect of age discrimination. Large penalties are increasingly common, but remain miniscule in comparison to the damage to reputation, impact on market perception and the many other knock-on effects of being identifies as an organisation which discriminates.
In addition to the statutory requirements, there may be others that are sectoral, contextual or professional. Being found in breach of any can have huge consequences.
That same threat can also be a great motivator for change and a way of making senior leaders take the moral arguments more seriously. Add to that the huge business and financial implications highlighted earlier, and it is possible to create the impetus for significant reform. It probably starts with a deep, intelligent, comprehensive and diverse review of the barriers to inclusion that have been inadvertently or deliberately created. The
voices of all the aspects of ‘difference’ need to be heard in that review and every perspective needs to be represented. Not because its ‘nice’ – but because it makes sound business sense and gives your organisation many advantages.
Society and busines needs to grow up if we are to reap the huge benefits of a fairer, more equal and more inclusive culture. The consequences of failing to do this are significant, expensive and potentially fatal for any organisation. Those who meet the challenge will become more attractive to talent and customers, more innovative and better equipped for this volatile world.
Time to make a change.
Join me on Tuesday 29 June at 13:00 GMT for a fireside chat where I will explore these themes – I'm looking forward to hearing your views.
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