Diversity in the Workplace

Diversity in the Workplace


Whether the academics and consultants like it or not, for years diversity was all about gender – and justifiably so.  In many countries, not least Ireland, women had for far too long been excluded from the workplace and many areas of society.


This gradually changed through the 1960s and 1970s and since that time participation by women in the Irish workforce has steadily increased.  This is due to a number of factors including social changes such as feminism and the well-known economic reality that unless your housing dreams extend only as far as a small studio apartment on Inishboffin then in most cases both partners to a relationship really do need working outside the home.


While this is very much a social argument, the writer Fintan O’Toole has asserted that a key driver of Ireland’s economic boom of the 1990s was the fact that “as the decade wore on, there were progressively more people working outside the home supporting fewer dependants” (2003: 22).  He continues:


Married women joined the work-force in increasing numbers, or women postponed marriage and stayed at work, adding to the number of wage earners and boosting the availability of labour.                                         (O’Toole, 2003: 22)


This argument is borne out by official statistics which show that whereas in 1998 women formed just over 33% of those in employment, by the first quarter of 2017 this had increased to 45.8%.


(As a seasonal aside, anyone who has children will recognise that despite these social and economic changes the institutions of state seem barely to have kept up – the process of schooling including school hours and holiday periods, and even holiday camps for children, seem to be structured around an implicit assumption that someone – presumably the very had to find “stay at home” mother! –  has nothing better to do with their time than act as a glorified chauffeur service.)


If we think more broadly, however, it is self-evident that despite the importance of addressing the male/female divide, diversity is so much more than this.

Mannix and Neale argue, for example that diversity should be understood as “variation based on any attribute people use to tell themselves that another person is different” (2005: 33).  They summarise the various types of diversity within organisations as follows:



Type of Difference

Social-category differences

Race, ethnicity, gender, age, religion, sexual orientation, physical abilities

Differences in knowledge or skills

Education, functional knowledge, information or expertise, training, experience, abilities

Difference in values or beliefs

Cultural background, ideological beliefs

Personality differences

Cognitive Style, affective disposition, motivational factors

Organisational- or community-status differences

Tenure or length of service, title

Differences in social and network ties

Work related ties, friendship ties, community ties, in-group memberships


It was consequently oddly ironic that when Leo Varadkar appointed his new cabinet a few weeks back the only measure of diversity that seemed to matter was gender. 

Una Mullally’s commentary piece in the Irish Times on June 21st argued that the “Taoiseachneeds to wake up to gender equality in Government”.  Two days later a piece in the Irish Independent proclaimed that “Taoiseach told to 'do better' on diversity” by a gathering of leading business women.


The Taoiseach’s response, as reported in the Irish Times, was that:


 “Diversity is not just about gender,” Mr Varadkar added. He said the cabinet had people of different religious backgrounds, people “from Donegal down to Wexford”, members of the LGTB community and “people from all sorts of backgrounds”


By my very rough reckoning the cabinet contains…


·         at least two openly gay people

·         Catholics, Presbyterians, Church of Ireland and, presumably, some atheists and agnostics

·         someone born in the US

·         doctors, teachers, academics, lawyers, a stockbroker and farmers, amongst others


While hard to assess from a distance there are undoubtedly significant personality differences between members of the cabinet.    Oh and there are also quite a few women – even if not perhaps as many as we all would like.


Let me be clear, I am not trying to defend Leo Varadkar or his choices: 7 out of 34 ministerial appoints for women is not great and he most probably should have made more of an effort to include women in the Cabinet in particular.  Yet by reducing the diversity debate to a binary male/female perspective we are doing a significant injustice not just to society as a whole, but also to other diverse groups.  We are in essence failing to recognise the true diversity which exists within the Cabinet.


Importantly, however, we are also implicitly stating that – to paraphrase George Orwell – all forms of diversity are equal, but some forms (namely gender) are more equal than others. 


Because lets face it… if we reduce a person’s identity to just being male or female and making decisions on that aren’t we quite possibly ignoring other key parameters of diversity, not to mention other gender identifications?


I would argue that what we need is a broader and more nuanced debate about

diversity in all its richness.  A debate that takes into not just the similarities but also the differences and looks beyond narrow binary perspectives.  Until such time as that happens we will continue to let down future generations of Irish people of all diverse types by arbitrarily classifying and limiting them.   As professionals in the field of talent and development we have a particularly important role in leading this debate and changing perspectives on diversity. 


As the blind adventurer Steve Cunningham says, it is very much about pushing through and beyond the boundaries that other people impose in order to achieve your potential. I would like to think that as a society we have moved beyond simplistic, binary views of diversity but sadly I suspect not.  And until we do we will all be placing implicit boundaries in the way of others.


About Laurence Knell

Laurence Knell is a director of Strategic Innovation Partners, a Dublin-based consultancy, and co-founder of Brain for Business.  He is an Associate Lecturer with the Open University Business School, specialising in the areas of strategy, innovation and creativity.

About Brain for Business

By linking neuroscience theory and business practice in a unique and accessible way, Brain for Business will bring the latest practical insights from the world of behavioural and brain science to enable senior organisational leaders to deliver better personal and business outcomes.
Delivered in an intimate, day-long and highly-participative format, workshop participants will be given tools that they can immediately apply to enhance their practice as leaders and deliver breakthrough results for their organisation.  The first Brain for Business event will take place at The Merrion Hotel in Dublin on 8th September, 2017.  See 
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