Diversity Paradigm Shift 3

Sometimes it’s important to look back in order to understand where we are, and where we’re headed. Leading on from my last blog, I’ve been thinking about what has happened in the equality & diversity (E & D) arena over the last half century.

For a long time the potent combination of moral righteousness (“discrimination and discriminators are wrong, equality and anti-discrimination campaigners are right”) and legislative underpinnings (“and what’s more it’s the law”) dominated the headlines of the equal opportunities ‘industry’. The heyday of this approach was probably signalled by the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry in 1999, and the definition of ‘institutional racism’ that resulted.

I’m not in any way knocking this heady era in the development of E & D, which started with the women workers’ strike at Ford Dagenham 1968 (that led to the Equal Pay Act 1970), and reached its highpoint in the Lawrence Inquiry (and the subsequent Race Relations (Amendment) Act 2000). I believe this period, driven as it was by popular movements for justice, signalled a necessary – and long-overdue – change in the way business and society deal with diversity. It ultimately provided us with quite sophisticated language, legislation and regulatory tools for addressing discrimination.

But I am also aware – from many uncomfortable ‘lion’s den’* days in the training room in the wake of the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry – of the ‘kick-back’ from ordinary police officers up and down the country, as their collective body reacted under the perceived ‘attack’ represented by the ‘accusation’ of ‘institutional racism’.

If any confirmation was needed that being ‘right’ and having the law on our side is not enough to create the world we might want to see, it couldn’t have been plainer. It took years to dawn on me that what neither moral sanction nor legislative redress can do is appeal to people’s better nature. They can limit our worst excesses. But it’s our better nature that’s needed in order to bring about the compassionate and inclusive society that I, for one, would like to live in.

What was missing in much of what we were doing as E & D consultants was a way of appealing to what it is in people that wants to engage with diversity, and is willing to do so with an attitude of respect, curiosity, compassion and a sense of humour – all of which require a spacious, unthreatened, mind. What we as consultants – and businesses – needed, it seemed, was a deeper approach to equality – not simply the formal one which focusing upon group characteristics and correcting historical wrongs (however important these continue to be). Emphasising only these aspects of equality carries the submerged hazards of eliciting guilt, accusation and judgment. We needed to temper them with a deeper approach to equality, which makes us really interested in who the ‘other’ really is, what they (and we) perceive in the world, what their (and our) qualities aspirations and talents are, and what they (and we) need in order to thrive and contribute to the best of their (our) ability.

It was, I believe, in response to this need that the idea of ‘diversity’ started to come into its own, and the Paradigm Shift really got under way.

* see Diversity Paradigm Shift blog 1 below