The Lenses We Need to Grasp Diversity and Inclusion
The Lenses We Need to Grasp Diversity and Inclusion

Karen Grave is the President of the Public Service People Managers Association (PPMA) in the UK. Before her term as President, she had worked in the field of HR in public institutions in the UK. In this opinion piece, Karen shares why diversity and inclusion (D&I) should be a priority for public service as well as other organisations, how Covid-19 has only made the issues more pressing, and how D&I adds value for customers and society as a whole.

How do diversity and inclusion relate to learning and development?

Diversity and inclusion is a topic that occupies politicians, policy makers, and HR and Organisational Development (HR & OD) professionals alike. And rightly so. But if not handled carefully, it can become problematic. In the UK, the Equality Act (EQA) 2010 set out a series of protected characteristics that are intended to level the playing field of opportunity.

Although progress has been made, it goes without saying that these unprecedented times have shone a further light on the issue of diversity and inclusion. How we think about our organisations and institutions, our work and personal life is now completely intertwined with “before Covid-19” and “after Covid-19”.

Crisis, of course, always amplifies the “good, bad, and ugly” in society. But few of us have lived through a crisis that has had such global impact. Covid-19 is a ruthless virus. Everyone has been affected.

The enemy unseen is always a more difficult enemy to fight.

If we are wise and focused, we could come to recognise this invisible killer as a catalyst for transformational change in how we address D&I. In the early stage of the crisis, in the UK certainly, it became clear that the proportion of patients and key workers dying from Covid-19 was higher amongst the Black, Asian, and minority ethnic (BAME) communities.

There is much more work to be done to ensure that we fully understand all the issues, but initial work undertaken by Public Health England exposes existing inequalities as contributing to the disproportionate impact on and poorer outcomes for BAME members of society in particular.

The Marmot Review into health inequalities published in February 2010 had already highlighted the impact of disadvantage on health outcomes. Governments and public service organisations have a duty to address these inequalities, whichever community they impact.

Contradictions…. Which lens is the best through which to view diversity and inclusion?

For public service organisations, diversity, equality, and inclusion has to be seen through two lenses. In the UK, D&I is a legal obligation through The Equality Act 2010, but it is social policy too. And this social policy also imposes legal duties to reduce inequality.

Why the social policy lens? Well, public service organisations are perhaps best thought of as “social purpose” organisations. They exist to serve communities and work with citizens, partners, the private sector, and a whole range of stakeholders to deliver purpose. It’s as simple and as complex as that.

Simply put, if our workforces do not reflect the communities we serve, it is already much harder to ensure that our policies and services will adequately reflect the needs of our communities. So, in this context inclusion is actually a matter of citizen representation. And in these difficult times representation is a powerful driver and one that is often overlooked.

The other lens that we have started to consider is one of growth and performance. There is increasing evidence, for example, that organisations that have more women on the board perform better financially. The Harvard Business School report on the predominantly male venture capital industry highlighted that “the more similar the investment partners, the lower their investments’ performance”. And further, “firms that increased their proportion of female partner hires by 10% saw, on average, a 1.5% spike in overall fund returns each year and had 9.7% more profitable exits”.

Read: Are Diversity and Inclusion Good for Business?

HR & OD has a clear role to play in mitigating longstanding inequalities

Although our primary focus has been addressing recruitment and ensuring those processes are equitable, ongoing learning and development is critical.

Updating recruitment practices is delivering results and that is heartening. For example, in 2018 in the UK a Local Government Chronicle sample of 145 top-tier councils showed that 59% of chiefs were male and 41% female – an improved gender balance. And the Parker Review February 2020 update has also shown real progress in how FTSE 100 and FTSE 250 organisations are addressing ethnic diversity on boards.

Understanding why and how this is working is really important if we want to deliver sustainable outcomes over the longer term. As we know, much of learning and development in this area has focused on unconscious bias. However, as Wired reported in July 2020, in reality this practice can be counterproductive.

Read: Does Unconscious Bias Training Work? It Depends.

So we need to ensure that we are taking a whole system view. I’d argue that inclusion is an organisational value. The progress we are starting to see can only be sustained by effective approaches to learning and ongoing development that create, establish, and nurture organisation-wide cultures that see inclusion as:

  • An organisation-wide responsibility
  • More than just a one-dimensional “protected characteristic”. The framework of “intersectionality” reflects that each person has their own richness and complexity and cannot be reduced to a single label.
  • A “performance advantage” – the better we represent citizens (or customers) the more attractive our brands become and the more able we are to attract and retain our colleagues.

And last but not least, inclusion must be a “normal” part of everything we do. An annual diversity audit doesn’t cut it, although HR & OD has a critical role to play in capturing evidence that informs decisions about how and where we invest learning budgets.

Aligning recruitment practices with employment policy, with a reward strategy that supports inclusive behaviours and which is aligned with a learning strategy that ensures that equal opportunities for development and progression are available is genuinely an inclusive HR & OD approach to building an inclusive, thriving culture.

Read: Diversity Alone Is Not Enough (Interview)


By Karen Grave, President, PPMA