A debate is raging around whether a focus on identity is helping or hindering diversity and inclusion in the workplace.
This was the topic up for discussion at the annual diversity debate hosted by the Diversity Council of Australia (DCA) this week.
“Identity politics has been fraught in recent years, constantly being debated in an era of Trump, fake news, the celebrations around Australia Day, Pauline Hanson’s politics and, in the recent marriage equality plebiscite, played out in all its beauty and all its ugliness,” said Lisa Annese, CEO of the Diversity Council of Australia while introducing the speakers.
Both sides of the political spectrum have criticised the focus on identity. On the left, the feeling has been that identity politics has only served to blunt the debate. The Democrat and US intellectual Mark Lilla has called identity politics, “a pseudo-politics of self-regard”, citing the failure of the Democratic Party to defeat Trump was due to its pursuit of minority voters instead of providing voters with a unifying philosophy.
On the right, the view is that narcissism and political correctness have smothered arguments for establishing greater diversity and inclusion in the workplace. Lilla, in his book, The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics, says of the US situation: “As soon as you cast an issue exclusively in terms of identity you invite your adversary to do the same.”
This was a point made by Libby Lyons, Director Workplace Gender Equality Agency, who was arguing on the side of those who said that identity does not help diversity and inclusion in the workplace.
Lyons said that identity politics can backfire, creating antagonism and resulting in a tokenistic approach to I&D rather than substantial change. She focussed on gender equality and the pay gap as an example where she said it was viewed as a women’s issue, discussed by women, for women. Critical to progress around gender equality in the workplace was viewing it as a business issue, discussed by men and women, so that parental leave policies for example become gender neutral and the norm for all parents.
On the opposing side in the DCA debate, Sharon Cook, chief legal and commercial counsel, National Australia Bank, argued that affirmative individual and group identity allowed people to bring their whole selves to work, “otherwise we would be beige”, she said. Don Elgin, Paralympian and Kumi Taguchi, host of Compass on ABC TV, also on the affirmative side of the debate said that diversity shouldn’t be a competition.
They both drew on their personal stories to demonstrate how individuals drew strength from being able to talk about their disability or ethnic backgrounds and share their experiences. Moving from a point of hiding their true selves to an environment of inclusion where they could share and role model to other minorities was a liberating moment for both of them.
Dr Sev Ozdowski, chair of the Australian Multicultural Council, struck perhaps the most interesting note when he identified the conflict at the heart of the question.
“There is a conflict between identity markers [such as being an older worker or gay] and individual characteristics, because people object when they are put into identity boxes. Identity markers don’t tell the whole story. We are a combination of many, diverse identities,” he said.
Despite often enormous expenditure and plenty of good intentions, many corporate inclusion and diversity workplace programs don’t deliver, said Ozdowski, “because inclusive workplaces can’t be created by assigning barriers and divisions. Many I&D measures are seen as dismantling merit-based systems and pitting men against women, gay against straight or black versus white. Instead, we need to concentrate on building a focus on common aspirations such as combating racism and refusing to tolerate sexism.”
What are your views on this contentious debate? HRM welcomes your opinions.
Broaden your perspective on diversity at the AHRI Inclusion and Diversity conference in Melbourne on 2nd November. Registration closes 26 October.