Society and Culture

Liberal vs anti-liberal conceptions of “diversity”

Diversity these days is synonymous with measures of difference rooted in the nine protected characteristics in the 2010 Equality Act (for example race, gender, sexuality, and religion), and usually in the negative context of concerns about discrimination and prejudice. Organisations ‘in the spotlight’ for diversity issues, such as elite football, are not usually being celebrated for their successes, in that case sponsoring the rise of dozens of young black millionaires and highly talented teams of immigrants. Instead, they are jeered for their failures, for example the racist chanting of some so-called fans, particularly abroad. Reputationally, diversity has become a negative asset; it is only talked about when you are perceived to be doing it wrong, even if the positive story is more interesting and serious than the counter-cases of poor conduct. In fact, the organisations most likely to be believe they have a diversity problem are the ones that least evidently do. For example, the BBC and other showcases for diverse talent in the arts. It is a bizarre situation and is playing into polarisation of Left and Right. The former appear obsessed with a counsel of despair that we are all inherently and intergenerationally hateful, and worse, incapable of change. The latter are resentful about the threat posed by the former, in the form of attempts to silence or ‘cancel’ people for dissent with popular or ‘high status’ views.

Conversely the positive and more general case for diversity in any organisational setting, briefly, is that a wider variety of backgrounds, experience, and attitudes amongst employees and other stakeholders, can be helpful to making better decisions, achieving better results, and better working environments. The thinking is that diversity of thought and talent is likely to increase the pool of new ideas, and more crucially challenge the groupthink that arises from looking at problems through the same, or similar sets of preconceived ideas, education, and shared experiences. Organisations that are culturally and intellectually monochrome might believe they benefit by having more harmonious internal relations or serving niche markets that are similarly homogenous. However, they lose out by being less able to adapt to change, and by suppressing talent – pressing individuals into their cookie-cutter model of ‘the right fit’, and lack a culture where they can test their assumptions about what works against people who think differently. There is an overlap between both types of diversity. Clearly differences of experience are likely to be linked to other forms of difference, but it cannot be automatically assumed that members of group X must share outlook Y, an assumption which itself is a form of stereotypical prejudice.

From a free market perspective, the general case for diversity can be considered a version of the argument that competition improves innovation, efficiency, and choice. Authoritarian and socialist systems are not diverse; they are the East German model of any car you like, so long as it’s a Trabant. Any people you like so long as they’re good socialists. The West conversely offered everything from high-end Mercedes to family-friendly Beetles, and sees the tension between liberals, conservatives, socialists and other ideologies as constructive (the battle of ideas). Fast food and restaurants under capitalism are a rainbow of creative choices to suit all tastes. Under socialism, fast food is a bread queue and only the party leaders get to eat out on a regular basis. Advances in personal liberty in the free world advance equality and inclusion; capitalism is diverse, socialism a dictatorship of conformity. For free-marketeers, the nostrum that diversity is an advantage is not only defensible but self-evident. It deserves better than to be surrendered as a concept and term to the identarian Left.

This is quite a different view however from the assumptions and priorities of the EDI (or equality, diversity and inclusion) industry that has sprung up around popular perceptions of discrimination and prejudice, particularly following the ‘anti-racism’ protests of 2020. The discipline has been elevated from a mechanism for addressing specific, tangible and resolvable problems in the workplace, such as biased recruiting, rudeness, and unfair treatment, to a nebulous mechanism for challenging “power that feeds oppressive structures” to deliver “institutional transformation”. Intangible concepts, drawing from bog-standard post-modernist critical theory word salad, EDI practitioners now seek to turn something important and positive into an incomprehensible set of irrational tools for berating people as part of an incoherent revolution. EDI is now a mechanism for enforcing groupthink, not challenging it. It is a mechanism for undermining the very thing it is claiming to seek to achieve. ’Anti-racism’ in reality is a racist presumption that people can be categorised by their skin colour, linked to generic assumptions about the way they think, their ancestry, and access to power, reduced to casual terms of racist abuse such as ‘white privilege’ and ‘uncle Toms’. EDI rooted in such an approach can be anti-equal treatment, anti-diversity of thought and anti-inclusion. That is if you don’t agree that making everything about race, celebrating your love life, or declaring your pronouns is the path to a better workplace. To believe that work is a place where the focus should simply be on getting the job done, underpinned by a culture of respect for difference, is strangely unpopular.

By way of example, I recently sat in a governance meeting for a public body, where, after two years of debating EDI, the committee agreed that it was so important that it should become a standing item for each meeting. The organisation had experienced a small number of actionable incidents going back to the 1970s, and it was unclear how well or badly each had been handled, if at all. They had long had rules in place to address such concerns, as is the case for most organisations since the 1990s, and recent incidents were vanishingly rare. Nevertheless, the examples that do exist have been catastrophised into a narrative of institutional failure, deemed sufficiently self-evident to engender a slew of initiatives that rank EDI a governance and operational matter of equivalent seriousness to the financial viability of the organisation or reputation for excellence.

Oddly, despite this consensus, after two years of discussion the organisation had not defined what EDI was, why it was important, or what would constitute success in doing something about it. Nor had this absence of clarity or strategy prevented the body from trying to hire someone senior to lead on the organisation’s EDI mission, on the assumption they could then define the strategy and measures for success, which is a novel approach to governance. It was a novelty in the context to propose the organisation think harder about what it had achieved, or the positive counter case – they were hugely successful and diverse in all sorts of ways. Or to consider the danger of allowing a small number of radicals to write your diversity narrative through the narrow lens of individual cases and ideological claims about the structure of society over which the organisation has no control. But it shouldn’t be, and it speaks back the point that the organisations most self-evidently good at diversity are those most obsessed with the idea that this isn’t true.

In practice, most EDI initiatives start with a call for measurement, generally of the nine protected traits and sometimes other things. There is for example a campaign for mandatory EDI reporting to be imposed on the charity sector. Another, this time focused on think tanks, is seeking to encourage reporting of the socioeconomic background of people’s parents as a proxy for class. The charity sector, which includes over 100 think tanks in the UK, compromises nearly 170,000 different organisations with nearly 830,000 employees, nearly as many trustees, and 14 million other volunteers or 30% of the UK’s adult population. It is, by definition, diverse, and it is not I think self-evident that it matters very much how many charity trustees are gay, Asian, Christian, married, or the children of miners. Not unless it matters to the specific aims of an individual charity, in which case they will publish it themselves. Certainly, the public do not have a right to know about individuals – it would be a gross intrusion on their privacy. Publishing percentages on such things in the context of organisations averaging 4-5 people is without meaning. Nor is legislation necessary. If such services are useful and valuable, they will be used and valued.

If further we want the general picture of diversity in a sector for any purpose, mandatory reporting is inefficient. We can rely instead on surveys and sampling, and this already happens. For example, a 2017 Charity Commission report found charity trustees to be much older (55-64 versus 40), more male (two thirds versus half) and a little whiter (92% versus 87%) than the population average. This, while interesting, was deeply unremarkable on all three measures. Trustees are volunteers utilising their significant life experience to advise generally younger staff. The gender and ethnicity profile will not reflect general measures of population but who was mostly likely be gathering that experience some 20-30 years ago. The 1991 census for example recorded a 95% white population falling to 91% in 2001. The female labour participation rate in the same period was 63-66% versus male rates of 80%, and more importantly at board level almost exclusively skewed towards men. Only in the last 10 years has female board representation risen from around 10% to 35-40% in larger companies. In that regard the charity sector is entirely typical of changing demographics in wider society, possibly a little ahead.

It is a similar point with EDI training. All larger and many smaller organisations will train their staff in their expectations for conduct in the workplace. This generally includes encouraging self-awareness, and treating people with dignity and respect, not as a set of stereotypes about their visible or assumed traits. Slowly but surely patterns of toxic behaviour that were common 50 years ago have become rare today with change encouraged through culture, popular movements, and organisational leadership. Where that is not true, the exceptions are liable to cause major scandal, as the outgoing Prime Minister found to his cost when he dealt with sexual harassment claims flippantly. One of the concerns with modern iterations of EDI training is that it reintroduces toxicity through stereotyping and unproven or debunked HR tools, such as the implicit association test, that seek to knock people down rather than encourage respect and dignity.

But surely in all this I’m missing the point about “institutional transformation” and the supposed value of EDI in addressing historic imbalances of power, discrimination, and unfairness towards people in minority groups. To which the short answer is yes, and the slightly longer answer is that it is up to groups promoting that agenda to prove its relevance, case by case. For example, by setting out clearly what problem it is trying to solve, what would be considered success, and illustrating positive case studies, rather than demanding the imposition of an ideologically identarian agenda through regulation while demonising dissent. I’m going to hazard a guess that for example in schools those spending their time and budgets on recruiting talent and promoting good teaching based on evidence of improving outcomes for their charges, will be rather more successful than ones hiring EDI Directors, decolonising their curriculums, and conflating diversity with training staff to see structural narratives in everything from rudeness to the selection of menu items in the canteen.

In brief, diversity itself is not the issue, and the term is worth celebrating as an expression of the values and success of liberal free society – a notable consequence of freedom of thought, association, and speech. Its corruption as a tool to serve an authoritarian regression to treating people as groups not individuals, through workplace conventions and rules conversely is serious, toxic, polarising, and is in consequence driving organisations mad. Seemingly innocuous moves, for example to gather data on people, are anything but and should be treated with a high degree of caution, rooted in necessity. The historic examples of societies that dogmatically count people by their racial and religious traits, particularly when serving the agendas of authoritarian revolutionary movements, are not happy ones.


Andy Mayer is Chief Operating Officer at the IEA. Andy worked as Head of Public Affairs, UK & Ireland at BASF plc for seven years. He has over 20 years of experience in strategic communications and the operations that support them in the business and think tank worlds.

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