Is there really such a thing as a minority/majority ‘divide’ in the equalities agenda that prevents it from being embraced pro-actively by decision makers, particularly those at the top-tier of organisations? A Chief Executive once said to me during a conversation: “…but what about me? I am white and male. I have worked hard throughout my career but I am the last person to benefit from equality and diversity initiatives”. I stared at him for a moment slightly taken back by his honesty but understood the context of what he was saying…
I stumbled into an article on The Guardian website earlier entitled ‘Multiculturalism and Diversity’, written by Kenan Malik. He defines diversity as ‘lived experience’ and makes a simple point: That it is the politicisation by the political elite and media spin doctors of ‘lived experience’, that remains the pervading reason why the term ‘multiculturalism’ has wrongly replaced ‘diversity’ (or lived experience) in its understanding, application and operation within the workplace. For Kenan, ‘multiculturalism’ refers to what he calls ethnic and cultural box-ticking. Diversity on the other hand, as I describe it, refers to the professionalisation and maximisation of the ‘petals’ of lived experience within an organisational context…and beyond.
I suggest that the confusion and misinterpretation of the former with the latter has had regrettable consequences on the UK’s socio-cultural and political fabric. Indeed, I suggest that the confusion of the former with the latter has, amongst other things, lead to the birth of what I call the ‘forgotten majority’.
The term the forgotten majority refers to those of White ethnic background who constitute the highest ethnic grouping in the UK. The UK is approximately 88% White. However, it is not often that I have come across equality policies which specifically demonstrate intended steps to ensure that this group is actually made to feel that they are a core part of, and benefit from the equality agenda. Is this an unintentional oversight? Or perhaps due to a fear of being seen as attempting to ‘side track’ equalities from being regarded as synonymous with the term ‘minority’? Furthermore, could it be due to a subconscious and misguided presumption that being of a ‘White ethnicity’ means that one is guaranteed not to be adversely impacted as a consequence of an organisational policy, process, procedure or strategy? Whatever the case is, it is not surprising that some of ‘White ethnicity’ may have, at least subconsciously, developed an understandable apathy toward the equality agenda.
In a BBC interview in October, 2008, Trevor Phillips, Chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) spoke about the rapid growth of what he called the ‘White Underclass’, a disenfranchised and ignored group, arisen in part, due to the outdated and ‘traditional’ focus of equalities which appeared to make it to be all about the ‘rights’ of BME’s (Black Asians and Minority Ethnic) groups: “…more help is needed for areas where there is a “white underclass” which has been “neglected” by existing equalities policies…in some parts of the country the colour of failure is not black and brown… it’s white – especially in some rural areas…we fail to deal with it at our peril“.
It could be argued further that the thinking concerning the White Underclass, is actually a snapshot of how disenfranchised and disengaged with the equalities agenda other members of the White community from a variety of backgrounds may also feel – and is probably that which prompted the comments of the Chief Executive – an assertion that I do not feel is too far-fetched to make. What about me? – I can still hear him say.
The aim here is not be deliberately controversial. It is simply to make an emphatic point: To move equality and diversity beyond the shores of multiculturalism and into our individual lived experiences, it must first be seen and understood to be inclusive – by all. Equality and Diversity therefore needs to be re-positioned. For whilst it is important to acknowledge the needs of minorities in the workplace so as to promote equality of opportunity, the method adopted should bear in mind that equality cannot be effectively promoted without acknowledging the corresponding equality concerns of ‘the majority’. Indeed, not to proactively acknowledge this steals away from what inclusivity is all about.
Take for example the extension of the meaning of positive action in the selection process (see the Equality Act, 2010): The idea that a ‘minority’ should be selected over an equally qualified candidate from a ‘majority’ group as a means of fostering workplace inclusivity – does not only leave the idea of inclusivity with a sour taste in the mouth, but surely will not serve as a bedrock from which to embrace and proactively promote the diversity agenda.
Should that ‘forgotten majority’ candidate be selected into an alternative position of authority in the future, what do we expect would be his/her take to promoting diversity? Indeed, let us not forget the selected ‘minority’ candidate, who despite all attempts, may probably not be able to get rid of the stereotype that he/she was selected because of their ‘minority status’ – a feeling that will probably also be reflected in the minds of his/her co-employees. Does this approach really positively serve the diversity and equality agenda, or is it simply serving an “ethnic and cultural box-ticking” function for Kenan’s multiculturalism?
My view is that target setting, tick-boxing and making selection decisions based on ones equality symptoms represents ‘quick fix’ solutions that unfortunately demonstrate an astounding lack of understanding and practical intelligence on how to promote real inclusivity – one that breaks the inadequacies of multiculturalism – leading to long term socio-economic and cultural benefits for the workplace – and society.
The Equality Act, 2010, with its ‘single’ approach to managing equalities, from an overall assessment, appears to be a step in the right direction however. It takes all the 7 equality strands (disability, ethnicity, religion or belief, gender, sexual orientation, transgender and age) and amalgamates them into a single equality duty. Importantly, it also seeks to acknowledge that there are other ‘equality areas’ that one ought to consider in the workplace that go beyond the ‘characteristics’ above, such as civil partnership and marriage, maternity and pregnancy, the caste system, etc. What the Act proposes therefore is the application and professionalisation of common sense to workplace inclusivity which goes beyond all forms of ‘forced’ box-ticking, and which we hope will ultimately eradicate and eliminate all from asking that question: “What about me”?
A 21st century approach to equalities therefore needs to be re-positioned: It is not about the ‘minority/majority divide’ of multiculturalism. It is rather about a considered and creative approach to fairness and inclusivity – which naturally shifts the argument away from the outdated politics of multiculturalism to the tangible and extensive benefits of diversity.