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  • Asad Dhunna

Where next for corporate diversity?

There has been much talk recently about the looming death knell of corporate diversity coming over the pond from the US. In recent reports, more than a dozen Republican state prosecutors have threatened the top 100 US companies with legal action over workforce diversity programmes. This follows the US Supreme Court ruling that race can no longer be considered a factor in university admissions (also known as affirmative action).


“The Harvard and U.N.C. admissions programs cannot be reconciled with the guarantees of the equal protection clause,” Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote for the majority of 6-3. “Both programs lack sufficiently focused and measurable objectives warranting the use of race, unavoidably employ race in a negative manner, involve racial stereotyping and lack meaningful end points.”


I’ve been pondering what this means for UK plc. Many business leaders I’ve spoken to have asked me about the ‘meaningful end point’ of ED&I ambitions and measures, telling me that they’re unsure about whether any initiatives or measures they’re enacting are having a net positive effect and whether the drive for racial equality over the last three years has really worked. Many have said that they’re reluctantly pulling back on budgets given the economic climate is creating increasing pressure and a need to prove a strong ROI of every penny spent.


A Not-So-Special Relationship

Before we rush to consign corporate diversity to the waste bin, we need to understand macro geographic and cultural trends and look beyond the prism of privilege walks and other such tactics. The US has long had a ‘special relationship’ with the UK - a term first coined by Winston Churchill in the 40s to describe the political, social, diplomatic, cultural, economic, legal, environmental, religious, military and historic relations between the UK and the US. If we take a deeper look at the speech from whence the term arose, we see that the relationship was actually between ‘the British Commonwealth and Empire and the United States’.


If we look at the wider context of the shifts in how we see the Empire and what we know of the Commonwealth, we have to assume that the context of this special relationship is rapidly changing. This special relationship is also playing out in the importation of the culture wars and the social split between cultural conservatives and those who are pushing for equality.


Our recent Diversity & Confusion research report went into this in detail, honing in on the word ‘woke’ and how this is being used divisively by media and politicians alike. It wasn’t always thus. Just this week we marked a decade since Equal Marriage legislation received Royal Assent - at a time when the UK had a Conversative and Liberal Democrat coalition government. While many dissented at the time, the law still passed and changed the lives of hundreds of thousands of people across the country.


For me it seems we’re at a moment where we need to reassess the special relationship and ask ourselves whether we want to continue to import our culture - wars and all - from the US. This is the argument Tomiwa Owolade gives in his new book, This is not America. In the page turner he examines the roots of Black American identity and how it is fundamentally different to the heritage of Black British identity. He argues that the system issues we have with race in Britain are not to be overlooked, however they pale in comparison to the US. If we co-opt the American narrative and approach we do a disjustice to our own history. “This book argues two main points,” he says. “We should understand race in Britain through a British perspective, and we shouldn’t reduce black people to their race.”


It’s fair to say that many corporate diversity schemes do exactly that - they see people through a singular dimension of identity. However, what we’re experiencing is much more complicated than that. As a colleague puts it to me whenever we discuss race and racism in Britain it usually comes down to our history with the Empire. In a recent learning session I delivered in Germany, my co-facilitator Floria Susan Moghimi argued that much of the ED&I conversation in mainland Europe is overly swayed by the US and the UK - a new form of cultural imperialism that, since Brexit, is being questioned within the workplace. What right do we have to say what inclusion means in Germany given its vastly different history of migration and race relations?


Corporate diversity: dead or woke?

Proponents of equality - and businesses’ role within that - need to take a more sophisticated approach, understanding macro trends that take us outside of the training room and into the world around us. The world is constantly changing and the trends surrounding economic inequality, social division and generational differences are all placing pressures on the workplace and the work that gets put out into the world.


For me, corporate diversity isn’t dead - it’s simply going through the critique it needs in the context of a culture war. We need to stay alive to this and recognise that it’s more complicated than just looking at what’s happening in the US and assuming it will be the same in the UK.


We need to take an insight-led approach, just as we would with any kind of business transformation. We can be informed by our lived experience, but we need to be grounded in the realities of our environment – wherever that may be.


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