Diversity and inclusion at work are increasingly seen as both morally and economically desirable. But what do diversity and inclusion look like? Common definitions of diversity tend to focus on the differences between employees in terms of age, gender, race, religion, sexual orientation and disability. However, this definition is rather narrow ignoring the rich variety of experiences and outlooks each individual employee will have. In an organisational context diversity also implies recognising individual differences and giving all people a fair chance.
Inclusion, a closely related term, can be described as creating an environment where these differences are not just recognised but they are celebrated, and actively used for the benefit of business and society. But how do businesses engage with this debate and drive diversity and inclusion in their organisations?
Diversity benefits businesses
There is an increasing recognition that diversity and inclusion are not just morally important, but they are also good for business and society. Representatives of both ends of the political spectrum routinely argue that Britain should be a meritocratic society. Indeed, it is hard to think of anyone who would argue against the idea that the most talented and hard-working people, whatever their background, should be the ones who succeed. This sentiment and the desire to drive a meritocratic society, was echoed by Teresa May in her first statement as Prime Minster in 2016: “We will do everything we can to help anybody, whatever your background, to go as far as your talents will take you.” Research also increasingly demonstrates a link between ethnic and gender diversity and firm performance. In 2006, the Women in Work Commission found that “[…] [R]emoving barriers to women working in occupations traditionally done by men, and increasing women’s participation in the labour market, could be worth between £15 billion and £23 billion” to the economy.
Responding to demographic changes
In addition, the UK labour market and workplaces must become more inclusive in order to respond adequately to demographic changes (for example an ageing workforce, more ethnic, cultural and religious diversity, and more migrant employees) and demands for social change (especially concerning the rights of women, families and the disabled). Therefore enabling all people fair access to work has social and economic benefits for us all.
How do we achieve inclusivity in the workplace?
Unfortunately, despite an increasing focus on diversity and inclusion, the UK workforce and workplaces are still some distance away from reflecting the diversity of the UK population. More worryingly, working environments are not yet inclusive enough to promote more diverse workforces (especially with regard to LGBT, disabled, and older workers) in the future. Whilst more inclusive organisations offer significant benefits to individuals, firms and society, achieving inclusivity is not always easy and it is not something firms can alone. What is required is a holistic, integrated approach that involves education and vocational training providers, businesses and the public sector all working together to ensure that people from all backgrounds have the opportunity to flourish and contribute to society.
A new research group at the University of Birmingham looking at inclusivity at work (WIRC) led by Jo Duberley and Holly Birkett, is driving forward this research agenda by examining innovative ways in which these different stakeholders can work together to enable firms to become more inclusive and realise the many benefits of this approach for their business and society more broadly.