The iconoclast: Diversity – or equal opportunity?

Fairness at work is important. But it's not the same as diversity.

“I’ll only appear on this conference panel if it has at least one woman on it.” “Shortlists without any women on them go straight in the bin.”

I’ve heard a number of comments like this made by white, middle aged men in the last few weeks. And it’s made me stop and think: is this sort of attitude going to help anyone?

Equality of opportunity is important. In fact “gender equality” is number 5 of the UN’s 17 sustainable development goals. And of course, gender should never have a negative influence on whether a particular opportunity becomes available to an individual.

Unfortunately equal opportunity is often justified as a short cut to achieving diversity in an organisation. And that’s a mistake. Equal opportunity simply isn’t the same as diversity, although there is a strong tendency to conflate the two things.

But just because one person is a woman and another person is a man doesn’t mean they have different skill sets or different attitudes. People who say things like “Women are less aggressive in the boardroom than men” are frankly being sexist.

Perhaps (if you could ever measure aggression in a reliable way) women are less aggressive than men– on average. But any one woman may well be much more aggressive than a particular man. So selecting a woman (or a man) to do a job just because of their gender could well be self-defeating.

Making choices about potential employees based on gender isn’t sensible, because it won’t deliver the hoped-for diversity although of course it does send a message about intent, especially when senior positions are filled by women.

Using ethnicity as a way of delivering diversity is similarly nonsensical. You need to go a lot further than skin-deep.

A room full of white, middle aged men may be very diverse – different psychological types, different education levels, experience of working in different industries or functions, different cultural backgrounds: my worldview is going to be very different from that of someone from Alabama, Kiev or Port Stanley for instance.

My worldview, however, is probably pretty similar to someone who lives in the South East of England, who went to University to study science, who works in marketing, and whose parents were born and brought up in London. Someone who I’d feel comfortable being friends with because we’d talk about the same sort of stuff. Whatever the colour of their skin.

Because if your skin colour is different from mine it’s absolutely no guarantee of diversity – as anyone who has studies genetics should be able to tell you.

Let’s fight for equality of opportunity. It’s plainly highly immoral to deny opportunity to people based on gender, skin colour, age, disability or any of the other protected characteristics that are listed in the Equalities Act.

But don’t think that by providing people with equal opportunity you will be delivering diversity. Because you probably are not.

This post reflects the personal opinion of the author and is in no way reflective of the editorial position of Image courtesy on iStockPhoto