What is diversity? You asked Google – here’s the answer | Joseph Harker

Joseph Harker
‘But what if the recruiter secretly still wants a certain kind of person, or wants to exclude another?’ Photograph: Yuri_Arcurs/Getty Images

“Diversity” has become a buzzword over the past two decades. But what does it mean and why is it necessary? To understand how we got here, and where we might go next, it’s worth a look back.

Most of us want a fair society, in which the people who are most able, motivated and dedicated are rewarded for their efforts: hardworking families, gifted children, that kind of thing. But we all know that’s not the kind of society we have. In reality, social background, wealth, gender, race and other factors can either enhance or reduce a person’s chances in life. The question is, what to do about it?

Some of these obstacles are relatively easy to counter: overt discrimination is simple to spot and therefore simple to legislate against. Those infamous 1950s notices “No Blacks, No Irish, No dogs” are now illegal. Job adverts requiring a man, or a person of a certain age (unless it’s a clear requirement of the role), have passed into history, too.

But what if the recruiter secretly still wants a certain kind of person, or wants to exclude another – “I want the builder to be a man”; “I think a black saleswoman will be bad for my business”? It’s extremely difficult to prove discrimination has occurred in the eventual selection, and therefore the chances of a successful legal case are remote. Even today this kind of discrimination can continue unchallenged. It took an undercover BBC reporter to expose the fact that lettings agents would happily assist racist landlords in rejecting potential black tenants. One agent was heard to say that “99% of my landlords don’t want Afro-Caribbeans, or any troublesome people”. And this was in London, commonly thought to be the city most at ease with multicultural Britain.

In other cases, discrimination can be unconscious: the employer has no desire to exclude, but has in the back of their mind the kind of person they see in that role. So when, say, a white, male, able-bodied applicant appears, he has an inherent advantage over someone who doesn’t fit that bill and may, therefore, be seen as something of a risk.

Whatever the cause, evidence shows that there can be huge disparities in opportunities. Non-white candidates, for example, are far less likely to be even called for interview if their name gives away their ethnicity. And this discrimination exists at all levels, even when the job applicants are graduates.

The idea of equal opportunities took hold in the 1970s: a person should have an equal chance to apply and be selected for a job, and thereafter to be trained and promoted, it was said. This is laudable. Put an advert in the paper, see who gets shortlisted and then who’s successful at interview, and ensure each stage of the process is fair.

But what if you do all that and the people you recruit are still all white, male, able-bodied and middle class? If there is no change to the mix of people in your organisation?

Some bosses may be happy with that – and even today it would be within the law for them to be so.

Others, though, may think there’s something wrong in the way they’re hiring, and that they want an organisation that better represents the community it serves, or the customers it seeks; that it’s just not right, say, to have all-male doctors, or all-white shop assistants, in a multiethnic area.

There’s a moral reason for this, of course. An organisation might say: “We have a duty to all members of the community to ensure they have a fair chance to work for us”. But there’s a business case, too: “If we don’t tap into the knowledge of a wide range of the community, we may be missing out on ways to boost our revenue.”

People from nontraditional backgrounds often offer a different perspective, and therefore are of far more value

This is where the idea of “diversity” kicks in. Whereas equal opportunity had its focus on the application process, diversity looks at outcomes. How representative is your workforce? And if the organisation does not reflect the wider community, then are there underlying issues which prevent underrepresented groups from joining?

Some will say these are false questions: that as long as the application process is fair, we can be sure the best person is getting the job and we shouldn’t be dropping standards just to let in certain groups. Even worse, they may say, we shouldn’t have quotas – which would exclude good white men. Positive discrimination is just as bad as other discrimination.

In fact, contrary to popular belief, quotas and positive discrimination are both illegal in Britain (though not in the US, from where a lot of these misperceptions emanate).

The idea of “standards” is worth more attention, though. If, say, you’re looking for a technical sales representative and you have one candidate who has a first in science from Oxford University, and another who has a second-class degree in the same subject from a newer university (a former polytechnic), should you automatically take the first person? Some would say yes, they’re probably stronger academically, so they can learn the new job quickly and deserve the position. To give it to the other person would be lowering standards.

But I would say: not necessarily. In this example, being a sales representative requires more than just academic ability: it requires strong communication and interpersonal skills, tenacity, a thick skin, the ability to think on your feet, versatility – and many other factors that cannot simply be measured by a degree grade. In fact, a top-class degree may signify someone who spends hours immersed in books, and who might therefore lack the personal skills required.

In far too many organisations, though, and too many job types, the traditional way has been to recruit the academic high-achievers – who typically come from similar middle-class backgrounds, many from public schools, and many from London and the home counties.

These organisations are missing out. People from nontraditional backgrounds often offer a different perspective in workplace decision-making, and therefore are of far more value to the company than yet another posh, white able-bodied man.

We’ve seen stark examples of this in the past year or so, where the political, media and business establishments – all dominated by southern, white, middle-class Oxbridge graduates – completely failed to spot what was happening in the country at large, be it Brexit or the Jeremy Corbyn effect. In the US presidential election, support for Donald Trump was similarly miscalculated.

So organisations must be open to recruiting in a different way, valuing different qualities, and targeting different populations. Sometimes this means schemes deliberately aimed at levelling the playing field, so that the barriers blocking nontraditional entrants can be overcome. These efforts will all have a significant impact.

But diversity alone will not put the British establishment in touch with the nation. That’s because a few brown faces, or people with disabilities, at junior level will change little. The key decisions will still be made by the usual types, who’ll get to decide how much, or how little, meaningful change they feel comfortable with. As Angela Davis once told the Guardian: “There’s a model of diversity as the difference that makes no difference, the change that brings about no change.”

For diversity to really work, those from new backgrounds must be valued, must feel valued, and be able to contribute fully to their organisation. This means that career paths must be open to them too, so they can progress to senior roles and leave a significant imprint. This means “inclusion”.

At the launch of the Parker review into the lack of ethnic minorities on the boards of Britain’s top companies, Sanjay Bhandari, a partner at the accountants EY, said: “Diversity is counting the numbers; but inclusion is making the numbers count.”

Most organisations accept that diversity is a good thing, and many are striving to bring in people with a range of backgrounds. Many, though, have not moved beyond the concept as any more than a box-ticking exercise which looks good in the annual reports. Inclusion is not as simple a concept as diversity or equal opportunity, and is not as easy to measure. But it is on the issue of inclusion, in the real experiences of those in the workplace, where the next phase of the equality struggle will be fought.

• Joseph Harker is the Guardian’s deputy opinion editor. He is a former editor and publisher of the weekly newspaper, Black Briton, and was previously assistant editor at the Voice

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