UTS: Management has hijacked struggle for inclusion and diversity

Western organisations have been subject to equal opportunity and anti-discrimination laws, gender equality policies and diversity and inclusion strategies for decades.

But the sad truth is that despite all this effort, there has been little fundamental change to the outcomes for workers labelled as diverse.

Senior executives in business and government are predominantly from Anglo-Celtic (75.9 per cent) or European (19 per cent) backgrounds. Most of them are men.

Only ten of Australia’s top 200 companies have a female CEO. Even though equal pay for women was legislated in Australia in 1969, more than fifty years later women earn $25,800 less each year than men.

More than 60 per cent of LGBTIQ+ workers do not reveal their sexual orientation to their co-workers, and more than half of workers with disabilities keep their disability secret. Almost half of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander workers report being discriminated against or harassed in the last year. That is twice that of non-Indigenous workers.

The situation is dire.

How diversity and inclusion can prevent real change
Over the past four years, we have been researching how relationships between people in Australian organisations are affected by different forms of workplace diversity. By talking to people across a range of professions and industries, we have gained insight into why diversity and equality at all levels and in all functions remain difficult to achieve.

We discovered that the lack of progress towards equality might not just be the persistence of inequality or dependent on the good intentions of an organisation’s leaders, but how the practice of equality is geared to preserve a repressive status quo.

Central to this is how diversity and inclusion practices have taken a political project with emancipatory and egalitarian goals and translated it into a managerial project wedded to commercial outcomes.

This managerial obsession helps to distance companies’ responsibility from broader structural inequalities present within them, and prevents real change. It also depoliticises the struggle for equality, so diversity and inclusion practices have not resulted in structural change that addresses underlying discrimination and exclusion.

Repressive equality
Diversity and inequality programs too easily become what we call a ‘repressive equality regime’. The problem is not so much the realities of inequality, but the vision of what equality means. These ‘regimes’ stand in the way of progress because they repress the true political meaning of equality from being articulated and acted on.

We have no reason to believe that organisations focusing on improving diversity and inclusion are not well-intended or make a difference for some people, especially when the promise of individual progress is an incentive. However, in its current form, the managerial practice of diversity and inclusion can prevent structural change by muting the sound of dissent and failing to challenge a fundamentally unequal status quo.

In other words, even in the most progressive organisations, their diversity and inclusion practices inadvertently can end up perpetuating inequality.

Getting radical
So, what can we do about this? Commitment from leaders to establish mutual trust and lines of responsibility are a good starting point, and that is increasingly present in many organisations. But that is not enough.

Beyond senior commitment is the need to face the hard realities of inequality rather than celebrating success stories. Company leaders need to own up to organisational injustice by making inequalities highly visible and calling them out as illegitimate and wrong.

If managers are going to lead in ways that address inequalities in the workplace, we need a radical political project. What we have now is a managerial project couched in terms somewhere between harmony and the “business case” for diversity. It is not good enough.

Beyond the business case
Equality is a basic human right and if an organisation engages in it for commercial self-interest, they fundamentally fail to understand what it is really about. Instead, organisations need to be held to account for their responsibility to the broader community they are a part of.

A shift from a managerial approach to an approach that embeds diversity into the heart of a company’s purpose, strategy and values requires them to accept the challenging goal of disrupting the status quo of privilege and injustice. For many, embracing an agenda of radical equality would be uncomfortable.

Moving beyond corporate inertia so that equality and diversity practice sheds its managerial project approach and embraces its political meaning is required. This means leading not as a distant and abstract management process, but in a transformational way with and for others.

Business schools can lead the way in this shift by helping managers and leaders understand that without this change, their good intentions and organisational equality regimes will remain as they are now: repressive rather than emancipatory.

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