Eight reasons why diversity is difficult to achieve in organizations

By Celina McEwen, Alison Pullen and Carl Rhodes

Our early findings from researching diversity in Australian workplaces show how diversity is made visible through internal and external means. Internally, diversity is managed through policies and dedicated diversity and inclusion positions. Externally, diversity is demonstrated through the display of indices and the attainment of awards. What we also found is that whilst diversity in business is promoted, celebrated and championed, unequal treatment, recognition and access to opportunities remain the reality for many staff labelled as diverse.

Bringing about change in an organization is challenging even for organizations that anticipate the business case benefits of diversity interventions. What makes it especially hard is the often-overlooked socio-political context in which diversity is managed. The reality is that despite decades of action and activism, diversity at all levels of organizations has not been realised. Here we outline eight reasons revealed by our research as to why diversity is so difficult to achieve in organizations.

Partial definition of diversity – It is common for diversity to implicitly refer to ‘others’, those from minority or marginalised groups, rather than to describe the whole range of staff employed in an organization. This implicit understanding of diversity helps shift the onus of responsibility for inclusion towards minority or marginalised groups who are thought to seek inclusion. Ironically, this means that attempts to be inclusive can actually produce more exclusion. To be inclusive, the diversity of all staff must be considered and responsibility for diversity needs to be recognised as belonging to everybody. This requires bottom-up as well as top-down diversity interventions that effectively manage what diversity is and show that it is valued.

Diversity as celebration – Diversity is conventionally conceptualised as a celebration of ‘others’, whether through sharing of food, dance performances, or individual stories of overcoming the odds. While well-intentioned, this reinforces the notion of diversity as ‘others’ and avoids addressing issues of systemic disadvantage, power imbalance and unequal treatment. Turning diversity into a celebration of others’ differences shields leaders from tackling the politics of diversity, which is central to challenging injustice.

Diversity is contained – It is common for staff labelled as diverse to be employed in specific roles and parts of an organization. The result is horizontal, vertical and/or professional segregation. For example, it might be the case that women take up leadership roles in Human Resource Management and men from minority groups become responsible for diversity and inclusion portfolios. We suggest that for diversity measures to be inclusive, diversity needs to be embodied at all levels and functions of an organization and the responsibility of all line management staff. How leaders are recruited and promoted is thus central to achieving diversity.

Diversity is obscured – How diversity is understood, made visible and contained serve to promote certain forms of diversity as acceptable and others as not. Although diversity is seemingly present, particular forms of diversity become legitimate and are made visible. This pushes the variety of experiences and realities of intersectionality into the shadows. Paradoxically, making one form of diversity visible has the effect of obscuring diversity.

Diversity fatigue – The responsibility for diversity is often given to a small group of staff within an organization. There is a danger that this responsibility does not come with the power or autonomy to instigate change. The result is that their efforts can be seen and felt as tokenistic, leading to a sense of burden and burnout. In such cases, there is often a relationship with diversity work being seen as inferior to other forms of strategic management.

Diversity policy-practice gap – Organizations have an array of policies in place to ensure equal opportunities and treatment of staff. These policies are designed by Human Resource Management professionals and approved by members of the leadership team. Staff at lower levels of the organization are expected to enact these policies. Policies, however, can be open to interpretation. The lack of feed forward and back between policies and practices, and two-way communication between leaders and other staff highlight the separation from and protection of power.

Unintended consequences of diversity training – Training programs for leaders that raise their awareness of, or even seek to challenge, their unconscious bias towards certain groups of people have been found to reinforce bias. One reason for that is because they unintentionally convey a message that because bias is a human trait we just need to accept it. Another reason is that these forms of training highlight systemic issues and can signal to leaders that as individuals change is not their responsibility.

Resistance to diversity – Open and latent resistance to diversity exists in organizations. This can be in the form of active opposition or in the form of passive blocking of change. Open resistance is often articulated as a fear of losing status and ‘hard-earned’ benefits. It can take the form of deliberate racist or sexist practices that prevent staff from minority or marginalised groups from being promoted. Latent resistance can hide behind discourses of merit or ‘cultural fit’, justifying the lack of advancement of certain members of staff. Leaders using this type of reasoning say that these ‘diverse’ staff do not have the skills and knowledge considered essential to perform a role when in fact they mean that these staff lack the relevant cultural or social capital.

The barriers to achieving diversity in organizations are significant, and assuming that a simple set of policies and practices can solve the diversity ‘problem’ is not only naive, but can make things worse. It is only by accepting the true scope of the challenge and making an embedded and long-term commitment to overcoming it that organizations can make real progress.

Photo by Soulful Pizza from Pexels

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