Analysis: achieving a culture of equality, diversity and inclusion in an organisation is often easier said than done

Despite equality legislation and equality policies, inequality persists nationally and globally. According to the National Disability Authority, over 36% of working age people (between 20 and 64 years of age) with a disability are employed in the Irish workforce compared to 73% without a disability. A 2018 ESRI study showed that people from a black non-Irish background are less than half (0.4 times) as likely to be employed than white Irish and five times as likely to experience discrimination when seeking work.

A recent World Economic Forum  report on gender gaps in health, education, work and politics stated it will take 99.5 years to close these gaps. In relation to the gender income gap, they found that women are heavily under-represented in technology (12%), engineering (15%) and data and AI (26%). These are sectors which have experienced substantial wage increases in the last decade. 

Defining equality, diversity and inclusion

Despite a growing understanding and recognition of the importance of equality, diversity and inclusion in the workplace, many organisations struggle to know where to begin. A good starting point is to have an agreed understanding of what these terms mean. They're often used interchangeably, but must be understood and treated independently if real change is to take place. For example, having a diverse workforce does not necessarily mean you have an inclusive working environment. To drive the systemic change required to achieve a truly inclusive organisation, you must first measure the current status of equality, diversity and inclusion in the workplace. This requires an understanding of what to measure and knowing where and how to look.

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From RTÉ 2fm's Louise McSharry show, Aoife Titley from Maynooth University and Sandrine Uwase Ndahiro from Unsilencing Black Voices on the lack of diversity in teachers and how it is affecting students

The concept of equality is defined in law (Employment Equality Act, 2015; Equal Status Act, 2018) and determines that everyone should have equal access to employment, education and access to goods and services. Nine underrepresented and protected groups are specifically identified as being at risk and protected against discrimination and being treated less favourably.

But equality of access and equality of outcome are not the same. Ensuring I have access and enabling me to attend the party is one thing, but proactively identifying and removing barriers to enable me to enjoy the party the same as everyone else is what distinguishes equality of outcome. Equality of outcome ensures that barriers to equality are identified and positive measures to address these barriers are implemented. For example, some organisations require a gender balance and/or gender representation on interview and promotion panels to counteract affinity bias in hiring where we are more open to hiring people who are like us.

Diversity describes the demographic of the organisation where there is a representation of people from protected groups. But having a diverse organisation does not mean the organisation is inclusive. Inclusion refers to an organisational culture where people from diverse backgrounds and protected groups are truly valued. In an inclusive work environment, I feel like I belong in the organisation and I can bring my authentic and true self to work without fear of discrimination or prejudice. To be truly inclusive, people from under represented groups and protected categories do not have to change who they are to assimilate to existing organisation norms developed by the majority. In a truly inclusive environment, individuals are equally valued, they have equality of access and equality of outcome.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Morning Ireland, Dublin Bus Employee Development & Equality Executive Vivienne Kavanagh and bus driver Tina Ahern discuss the company's recruitment drive to try to get more female drivers

Why should we promote equality, diversity and inclusion?

The approach should be the same whether the agenda is driven by an ethical and moral commitment aligned with the organisation's values and the UN Sustainable Development Goals, a business decision to harness the benefits of diverse perspectives for competitive advantage or a protectionist approach to avoid litigation caused by accusations of discrimination. The organisation is a system made up of structures, policies, processes and behaviours that contribute to a culture that influences our individual and collective experiences. Managing equality, diversity and inclusion requires a systems approach where every dimension of the organisation's system is audited. 

Making equality, diversity and inclusion visible within the organisation is a key starting point. You cannot change what you can't see, feel, hear, understand or quantify. Auditing the system and achieving systemic change requires quantitative and qualitative data. We know from numerous change models that the first step to realising change is creating an understanding and awareness of the need to change.

How to measure if policies are working

Data will help to achieve understanding and buy-in. Diversity is straightforward to measure: it is a matter of headcount, measuring the number of individuals belonging to protected categories in different parts of the organisation. However, diversity becomes more complex to measure when considering intersectionality when membership of one or more protected groups can compound disadvantage and discrimination when it comes to representation.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's This Week, Mary McGill from NUI Galway on the axing of Fireman Sam as a mascot for not being inclusive

Quantitative data measuring diversity and representation is critical for pinpointing vertical and horizontal segregation in the workplace. Vertical segregation refers to the concentration of specific groups in different grades, levels of responsibility or positions and reflects who holds leadership roles and power within the organisation. Horizontal segregation refers to the concentration of specific groups in different sectors and occupations and reflects role stereotyping in disciplines and professions.

However, while diversity is about representation, inclusion is about involvement. Equality and inclusion are more complex to measure, quantifying experiences of equality and feelings of inclusion can be elusive. Managing equality, diversity and inclusion requires knowing what to change and this can be identified through quantitative and qualitative data.

We know from studies that achieving diversity will not drive inclusion and quantitative data can only tell part of the story. Data uncovers the lived experiences of diverse groups making experienced and perceived exclusion visible. Not having to hide your true self and being able to bring your whole self to work are critical for employee engagement, psychological safety, wellbeing and a sense of inclusion. 

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From RTÉ 2fm's Dave Fanning Show, Body & Soul promoter Avril Stanley on acheiving equality and diversity at music festivals

Consider the mental, emotional and physical strain an employee feels who constantly has to regulate and censor their language, accent and behavior to fit in and be accepted. Research into the lived experiences of multicultural professionals found  37% of African-Americans and Hispanics and 45% of Asians said they "need to compromise their authenticity" to conform to their company's standards of demeanor or style. While the study also showed that women in the science, engineering, and technology industries indicated that regardless of gender, acting "like a man" can provide an advantage in becoming a leader in these fields. A 2013 study conducted by Pavee Point Travellers Centre found that travellers have to hide their identify and address from prospective and current employers to be accepted.

Diversity data alone will not uncover these systemic and subtle barriers to access and inclusion. The lived experiences and stories recounted by people from protected groups through surveys, interviews and focus groups will reveal what needs to change. Gathering equality, diversity and inclusion data will help to inform your equality strategy and the design of a data informed action plan.

Changing an organisation's culture

Diversity and inclusion work is about culture change. To change culture, you must address the organisation's wider systems and get the commitment and buy-in of all stakeholders. A critical starting point is creating awareness, understanding and acknowledgement that privilege can make it difficult for all stakeholders to understand the lived experiences of those who do not enjoy privilege. Quantitative and qualitative data can help create this understanding by providing evidence of under-representation and discrimination and making equality, diversity and inclusion visible.

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From As/Is, what is privilege?

As with any organisation change, senior and middle management support is critical to champion and advocate new behaviours, policies and processes and embed a culture of equality, diversity and inclusion. Gaining this buy-in and support can sometimes be difficult as they often don't see the economic benefits of the power of parity and the competitive advantage of utilising diversity. Aligning the organisation's equality strategy and action plan to the wider organisation strategy will help to gain senior leadership support. Leaders hold power in relation to role modelling behaviours, policy and decision making, and the investment of resources so their support is critical to achieving the equality strategy and action plan.

Middle and frontline managers also play a critical role, setting the tone and culture within their teams and departments. As such, they have significant ability to influence a culture of equality and inclusion throughout the organisation. Managers are responsible for the proactive role modelling of inclusive behaviours and implementing equality action plans and initiatives within their teams and departments. Under the Employment Equality Act, they are also responsible and accountable for the timely intervention to address discriminatory behavior when they observe it or if it is reported to them.

Ultimately, every individual is responsible and accountable for their own behaviour. Every individual has the right to be treated with dignity and respect within the workplace and the right to equality of access and outcome. When it comes down to it, we are the system no matter what level we work at in the organisation. Each one of us has a role to play in achieving a culture of equality, diversity and inclusion. The data shows us where to focus our efforts for change, but each one of us must make the effort to realise the change needed for a culture of inclusion.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ