Three steps to driving genuine diversity

Jan 18, 2023 | Diversity

Driving genuine diversity is “not just a moral crusade, but a business priority”. Lee Elliot Major, Professor of Social Mobility at the University of Exeter and former CEO of the Sutton Trust, explains how.

Most weeks I’m asked by a major employer to talk about social mobility. I always feel like the miserable guest who spoils the party.

Employers have undoubtedly made strides in thinking about socio-economic diversity. But we are still in the foothills of a long climb to the promised land of workplaces free from class divides.

The next step I believe requires changing hearts and minds. I’m currently writing a book for teachers advocating a new inclusive approach in schools termed ‘equity-based education’. Three ideas underpin the approach. They apply just as much to driving genuine diversity in the attraction and development of talent.

1. The new normal is that no one is normal

First, understanding the multi-dimensionality of people’s backgrounds should be standard practice for all employees. Intersectionality is important because it highlights the unique experiences of individuals who belong to multiple categories, such as race, gender, social class. We are all the sum of many parts. 

Statistics showing average differences between groups of people can highlight system wide disparities – race and class pay gaps for example. But they don’t define someone at an individual level. They should never be used to stereotype or label people.

Teachers and lecturers now work in environments where most students are diagnosed with some ‘condition’ from autism to attention deficit hyperactivity disorder to many other social, emotional and mental health issues (classrooms have always been ‘neurodiverse’, a less loaded term).

Assessing needs has become a mainstream activity not a minority pursuit. The new normal is that no one is ‘normal’.

2. Capacity not deficit thinking

Second, we should think in terms of what employees can do rather than on what they cannot do.

People with working class backgrounds bring different voices and perspectives into an organisation. But they are also different assets.

I’ve always been struck by the example from medicine, where general practitioners from less affluent backgrounds have been found to be more likely to work in practices serving deprived communities and pursue family medicine – just where more doctors are needed.

It’s easy to slip into a deficit mentality, trying to ‘mend’ people who have experienced barriers in their lives outside the workplace. Instead, we need to reflect on our own cultural norms: are we alienating those unfamiliar with the ways things are done? Are we unknowingly hindering those who don’t fit in?

3. Equity not equality

Third, we should pursue equity, providing additional resources for those who have faced extra barriers. This is different to equality, which is about ensuring all receive the same treatment.

When I was chief executive of the Sutton Trust, the founder and chairman Sir Peter Lampl used to remind me that improving social mobility was like ‘pushing water uphill’. It’s hard to equalise opportunities. If we do nothing, the playing field of life becomes ever more lopsided.  

What are the practical implications of all this?

Well for one, current diversity efforts that omit social class are flawed and potentially damaging. We are excluding a large talent pool of increasingly disenchanted white working-class males. At the same time, we are failing to address class discrimination faced by women and people with ethnic minority backgrounds.

We also need to challenge long-established practices. Interviews for example are a selection tool loaded with middle class advantage – comfortable for those used to debating across the dinner table, intimidating for those who are not used to public challenge. 

I also advocate the ‘threshold approach’ to selection: picking a pool of applicants capable of doing the job, and then using other criteria to decide who makes the final cut.

Finally, we need senior leaders to buy into the equity approach. The only way cultures change is through a combination of top-down and bottom-up convictions.

If you’ll still invite me to talk, my message is that this is not just a moral crusade, but a business priority. I have no doubt that organisations that flourish in the future will be those attracting and developing talents from all backgrounds. Those stuck in the old ways will wither and die.

Lee Elliot Major presented at ISE’s Equity, Diversity and Inclusion conference. Read more insight from ISE events

Read more data and advice on driving genuine diversity





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