Culture and research

Diversity is not a threat but an opportunity

07 Dec 2020

Terence Parris

I am writing this as a Black man raised in the East End of  London (the relevance of this will become clear), who went on  to be fortunate in his career and life. The following is based on  personal and professional experiences, and is what spurs my  passion for life and why I believe Diversity & Inclusion (D&I) is  important. 

In British society in the 1970s, what is now acknowledged as  ‘institutional racism’ was prevalent, especially in the police  force, and the chances of having a successful professional  career were less than those of being arrested or worse. If you  managed to ‘escape’ there was just as great a likelihood of  hitting a very low ‘glass ceiling’. But yet, from this grew a great  desire for positive change, in the workplace and society as a  whole. So in embarking on this article, I reflected greatly on  how it would be read and perceived.  In a year regarded by many as the worst in living memory, and  one almost everyone will want to forget, it may seem hard to  talk about Diversity, when for many it was already a luxury or  trend before this year’s hardships. There was/is already a sense  of ‘Diversity fatigue’. People in power were saying it was  already difficult to ‘tiptoe’ around or even understand the  issues, so trying to convince such people of the benefits to a  company and society of having a diverse environment is an  increasing challenge. This was perhaps happening before  Corona, but the current global mood of survival and self preservation makes it all the more difficult for Diversity to be  given the important attention it deserves. #MeToo already had  momentum, and #BlackLivesMatter reached a climax following  the death of George Floyd … but diversity may be stalling in  the wake of fatigue and the global mood.

Two books I’d highly recommend are Why I’m No Longer  talking to White People about Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge, and  White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About  Racism by Robin DiAngelo. Both highlight how difficult it is to  even acknowledge the issues, let alone address them. The  once growing sea-swell is moving down the priority list. The  ‘victims’ of this wave (sadly not a tidal wave – yet) are white,  heterosexual, Christian and male – most likely middle-aged and  able-bodied – but for now I’ll focus on the first four. They are  probably breathing a sigh of relief at the thought that the  agenda may be shifting.  There is a saying: ‘History is written by the victors’! Whether  absolutely true or not, it really isn’t surprising that it could be  argued that the way the world is viewed is through the lens of  those four pillars. White heterosexual Christian men are seen  as having shaped the world we live in today, for better or  worse, and by whatever means. They have colonised for  centuries, physically, and are increasingly behind a growing  cultural and intellectual ‘colonisation’ through the media, both  traditional and social. True, many would say that social media  does democratise the ownership and distribution of content to  a degree, but it still remains the case that the predominant  perspectives being presented are based on those created by,  or perpetuating the values of, those four pillars. This is arguably  true no matter where in the world it comes from, by whom, and  from what background. 

James Brown (the American singer) had a classic hit song with  ‘This is a Man’s World’ – which maybe true. But women have  adapted to operate and succeed in this ‘world’ in a way that  would be far more unlikely if things were the other way around.  In my own experiences, I was an above-average student, and  whether it was in class, at a pub quiz, or watching a TV game  show, I did well on general knowledge, history, geography etc.  … because I was raised and educated through this ‘four pillar’ lens. I strongly believe that someone from the ‘four pillar’  background would not fare as well if the circumstances were  reversed. They have never had to see the world through any  lens other than their own. The same is very likely true of any  demographic group that does not have all the four ‘pillars’.  They have the ‘advantage’ of more than one cultural reference  point. 

As a hiring manager for many years, I was always interested in  people who applied from ‘different’ backgrounds, for roles not  obviously suited to their background. Not necessarily someone  culturally diverse, but for example a chef who wanted to  become a sports marketer. I’d always want to interview  someone who might come to it with a different perspective,  and not just, ‘this is the way we did the same thing at a  different company.’ I felt such candidates would shake things  up, bring a fresh perspective, challenge the existing  conventions. Maybe it was easier, because I was already doing  this, and had been doing it implicitly and, where possible,  explicitly (the above book by Reni Eddo-Lodge also talks about  how we also had to conform and not be explicit in order to  ‘survive’). But it does raise a question, the reason I’m writing  this, and why I chose the title. ‘If you were interviewing  someone for a position where languages were not a specific  requirement for the role, would you view someone who was  bilingual or multilingual who had all the relevant qualifications  more favourably than the other candidates?’ Very likely yes … not least because one may already see a path for the  candidate beyond the current role, and in a way that would  favour both them and the company. So why isn’t diversity seen  in the same positive light? After all, a candidate from a diverse  background with the same and relevant qualifications is likely  to have tried and worked harder, as well as overcome more  obstacles just to get to the interview. I also encourage  candidates to go into interviews with a greater sense of  confidence and self-belief (not arrogance, but a belief that they have more to offer than the non-diverse candidates).  Admittedly the glass ceiling hasn’t disappeared, but you can  make it hard for someone to resist you.  It still requires the hiring manager to want to hire diversely … and earlier it was highlighted that there remains a resistance,  even a fatigue with regard to the value of diversity in the  workplace. So why proactively hire diversely? Well, a McKinsey  report has stated that ‘…latest research finds that companies  in the top quartile for gender or racial and ethnic diversity are  more likely to have financial returns above their national  industry medians.Now, when it is tangibly good for business,  that has to be of interest. In addition, having a diverse  workforce has been shown to improve the working  environment and productivity of a company, and in a business  to consumer industry, it is more likely that the output is more  relevant to the end consumer!  So if the proposition is greater profitability, better morale in the  workplace, greater and purposeful corporate responsibility, and  improvements in the perception of the organisation as a whole … why the fatigue and resistance? Well, the answer runs a lot  deeper, and is addressed in the books I referenced. But I am  arguing that diversity should be seen as an opportunity and not  a threat!  

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