A Double-Edged Swor
This study applies a sociological lens to the study of the impact of gender diversity management in the UK, a topic that has oft been relegated to the field of management science despite its pertinent sociological implications. Data was derived from semi-structured interviews conducted with 11 diversity practitioners and experts. Inductive analysis of the interview data revealed the contradictions inherent in diversity management strategies that can be seen as double-edged swords – bringing about some tangible change whilst reinforcing the norms that have served as the root causes of gender inequality.
This dissertation is an explorative qualitative study on the social impact of corporate gender diversity management initiatives and their failure or success in redressing ascriptive inequities. In doing so, this research also seeks an understanding of gendered power relations in the workplace.
Specific definitions of “workforce diversity” differ from organisation to organisation. It can be broadly defined as the individual, group and socio-cultural differences employees bring to their workplace. These differences include, but are not limited to, gender, race, disability and sexual orientation (Konrad, 2006). As a way of assessing the tangible impact of their initiatives, organisations measure diversity both quantitatively and qualitatively with metrics like representation and retention rates of minority groups as well as employee feedback surveys (Brenman, 2012). “Diversity management” is defined as the purposeful cultivation of a diverse, inclusive and representative workplace environment. It also refers to the valuing and harnessing of differences to meet the goals of the organisation (Kandola & Fullerton, 1998).
Diversity management first gained momentum in the US and has since been identified as a key driver of organisational growth globally. It signalled a move away from simple, passive compliance to equal employment opportunity legislations (i.e. The Equality Act 2010) to more deliberate, managerial efforts made towards the cultivation of an inclusive organisational culture. Organisations also align their management strategies with the ‘business case’ for diversity (Kandola & Fullerton, 1998) that has gained popularity in recent years.
Unlike the US, where diversity management gained popularity off the back of affirmative action, the move towards diversity management in the UK was rooted in increasing disillusionment with equal opportunities policies and equality activism (Greene & Kirton, 2009). Since the 1990s, formal attention placed on diversity has become increasingly prevalent within UK organisations. The 2011 Workplace Employment Relations Study revealed that 77% of UK organisations had formal policies on equal opportunities or diversity management (up from 66% in 2004) and 33% had strategic diversity plans in place (up from 28% in 2004) (Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, 2011).
Diversity programmes focusing on gender are the most well-established and prevalent across the board. There is also a significant presence of non-profit organisations (i.e. Business in the Community) and network groups (i.e. Women in Banking and Finance) advocating for organisational gender parity. Yet, gendered occupational inequality, especially when we look at senior management levels, persists across most industries (CIPD, 2015). Despite organisational commitment to diversity management, at least in principle, Britain was ranked 11 out of 18 in a Glassdoor (2016) Economic Research report on workplace gender equality that considered indicators such as board representation and remuneration. Additionally, the recent glass ceiling index by The Economist (“The best and worst places to be a working woman”, 2017) ranked Britain below OECD average and revealed that women held only 35.4% of managerial positions. Minimal progress has indeed been made but stark inequalities still prevail. The persistent inequalities despite established, concerted efforts of gender diversity initiatives served as the impetus of this dissertation to focus on this particular area of diversity management. Additionally, my personal experience interning in the corporate diversity space provided me with the opportunity to gain a brief overview of some conflicting thoughts within the organisation on the value that gender diversity management brought. This further fuelled my academic interest in this area.
Given these current trends, it has become increasingly relevant to analyse the wider social impact of corporate diversity initiatives, the ways in which individuals experience them and how that affects workplace power relations. Diversity, by its very definition of the embodiment of sociocultural differences, is a relational concept deeply embedded in hierarchical social structures (DiTomaso et al., 2007). Furthermore, diversity management can potentially have crucial knock-on effects on wider social trends, more specifically gender inequality in the labour market. There thus lies great value in applying a sociological lens to examine this issue as it would contribute towards an understanding of the mechanisms of power relations in daily workplace interactions that reproduce or mitigate inequalities (Reskin, 2003), a hallmark of the sociological discipline.
The broad questions I seek to investigate in my research are:
- How have gender diversity programmes been (in)effective in redressing workplace gender inequalities?
- What are the factors that have contributed to their failure or success?
- How do key stakeholders (i.e. diversity practitioners, diversity experts) experience or perceive these initiatives?
An examination of relevant extant literature revealed two key gaps, which I will seek to address in my research.
Firstly, existing literature have mostly been situated in the discipline of management sciences. This is understandably so as diversity management typically falls under the remit of human resources management, hence explaining the concentration of literature in this field. There is a marked lack of sociological focus which I would argue is crucial in examining this issue and its wider implications. This is especially since it is primarily concerned with sociocultural demographics and workforce dynamics, issues which are similarly central to the sociological discipline (Friedman & Friedman, 1993).
Secondly, as diversity management originated in the US, most of the academic literature, including the notable few that do adopt a sociological approach in their analysis, is situated there. There remains a dearth of literature situated in the UK despite corporate diversity initiatives being similarly well-established here.
Nonetheless, the existing literature, which I will proceed to review, has been useful in contextualising and guiding my project in terms of the theoretical and empirical frameworks employed in relevant extant research.
Corporate Diversity Programmes
Most literature specifically pertaining to corporate diversity management focuses on the potential value that it brings to the business and its efficacy (or lack thereof).
With regards to the business case for diversity, The Department for Business Innovation & Skills (2013) conducted a review of relevant economic evidence and organised diversity’s business benefits into two categories – internal and external benefits. External business benefits refer to the benefits closely linked to the achievement of a representative workforce such as savings in employment tribunals due to compliance with equality legislation. Internal business benefits, which are the more compelling incentives, refer to benefits of diversity as a desirable workforce characteristic in terms of enhancing productivity, producing more creative problem-solving solutions, improving organisational branding and other business related outcomes. A more diverse workforce has thus been argued to improve a firm’s competitive advantage (Richard, 2000) for the aforementioned reasons.
Gaining an understanding of the business case helps contextualise my interviews with the diversity practitioners, who would speak about corporate diversity in these terms, and provides the possibility of reconciling the business case and the sociological case for diversity in the final analysis.
There is a general consensus that diversity management has the potential to cultivate a more representative workforce. Shen et al.’s (2009) critical review of the current state of corporate diversity management worldwide revealed that many top organisations have been successful in ensuring representation of increasingly diverse demographics in terms of their recruitment of women and other minority groups. However, whilst these concerted efforts have successfully brought more minorities into the workforce at an entry level, they have been less successful in ensuring representation at senior management levels (Dobbin & Kalev, 2013).
Considering the different types of initiatives in detail, Kalev et al. (2006) identified three key approaches to increasing diversity – the creation of specialist positions, training and networking/mentoring. This typology proved useful in terms of providing structure to the interview questions asked. Their statistical analysis, which was based in the US, revealed substantial variations in the success of the abovementioned programmes. Initiatives that aimed to change individual behaviours or attitudes were shown to be less effective in remediating workplace inequalities than the setting up of goals and accountability structures.
Focusing specifically on gender diversity management, of which my dissertation is focused on, Williams et al. (2014) sought explanations for these initiatives’ inefficacies by conducting in-depth interviews with female scientists in US oil and gas companies to gain their perspectives on this issue. Targeted hiring and promotion policies were met with much resistance from female scientists who felt that these practices went against meritocratic principles, which was what they deemed the scientific field to be built upon. Diversity training programmes were most popular among female scientists. Williams et al. theorised that this was due to the narrative behind diversity training that implies benign gender differences are to blame for senior underrepresentation and that women should not be blamed for their exclusion. Yet, interviews revealed the sometimes contradictory nature of these initiatives. Diversity training has been argued to potentially reify gender differences by implying personality differences between men and women which make the former more suited for managerial roles and the latter more suited for supportive roles. This serves to reproduce vertical segregation and occupational inequalities rather than redressing them.
Although their research is only focused on a very specific industry, it raises key insights which I will seek to build upon in my dissertation as I explore in further detail the sociological implications of these highlighted contradictions and the ways in which they contribute towards the reproduction, or perhaps even subversion, of gender roles in the workplace.
As I aim to explore this issue through a sociological lens and to consider the wider social impacts of these corporate diversity programmes, it is important that I ground my dissertation theoretically in the field of gendered occupational inequality, a key concern within the sociological discipline.
There is much theoretical and empirical work on ascriptive inequality in the workplace. Kanter (1977) and Acker (1990) have been particularly influential in this field, serving as the basis for much contemporary literature.
Kanter’s five-year longitudinal study introduced the concept of homosocial reproduction to explain the experiences of minority groups in the workplace. Homosocial reproduction is defined as the inclination of majority social groups to perpetuate their dominant power relations (Ember & Ember, 2003) by reproducing and sustaining their dominant demographic makeup (Smith, 2013). My research will not be focusing on the personal experiences of women in the workplace but Kanter’s work will nonetheless help guide the explanations behind persistent inequalities.
Elliot & Smith’s (2004) research sought to test this theory’s application and relevance in the modern economy. Their work revealed that whilst homosocial reproduction was consistent across gender and race, more opportunities were given to white men to engage in these practices which negatively affected women’s opportunities to advance in their careers. Self-similar preference thus resulted in the reproduction of ascriptive inequalities. Duncan et al.’s (2012) research on the impact of female board representation further corroborates this. Their analysis revealed a strongly positive correlation between female board representation and gender diversity at a managerial level. However, this was not so at an executive level.
Acker argues against the conventional understanding of organisations as bureaucratically and rationally run gender-neutral institutions. Gender is argued to be integral to processes of control within the organisation in five interconnected ways. Firstly, divisions of labour are done so along the lines of gender with managers initiating them (such as men always being in the highest positions of power) and organisational practices sustaining them. Secondly, symbols and images in popular culture, such as the image of the corporate leader as a representation of successful masculinity (Lipman-Blumen, 1980), reinforce these gendered divisions. Thirdly, patterns of daily interactions in the workplace reproduce gender relations (West & Zimmerman, 1987) and hence inequality in the workplace. Fourthly, these processes serve to constitute gendered components of identity, such as the ways in which employees present themselves as gendered members of the organisation. Lastly, the socially constructed category of gender itself becomes implicated in these ongoing processes. Organisations and hierarchies within organisations are thus argued to be inherently gendered and sites of reproduction of gender relations. Acker’s work is relatively dated and some of her arguments seem deterministic and thus may not be as relevant against a modern organisational background of subtler forms of discrimination and exclusion. Nonetheless, her theory of gendered organisations still plays an influential role in much contemporary literature and serves as an appropriate theoretical grounding for my research.
As a contemporary explication of this theory, Williams et al. (2012)’s research applies Acker’s analysis to a case study of geoscientists in the oil and gas industry, providing an updated interpretation of her work to show how gender inequalities are embedded in the new economy through in-depth qualitative interviews. They posit that team structures, career maps and networking characterise the modern organisational logic and serve as the new mechanisms through which gender inequalities are reproduced in the twenty-first century workplace. Similar to Williams et al. (2014)’s research, this study is limited to a select, privileged group of women in a very specific industry. Despite this, it serves as a relevant paradigm which I can model my dissertation upon in terms of exploring the potential inherent structural reasons behind the inefficacy of diversity management, beyond the nature and execution of the initiatives themselves.
These works serve to ground the dissertation sociologically by highlighting the social imperatives of corporate diversity, beyond its oft-discussed business value, and the inherent structural characteristics that reproduce gender inequities and hinder the efficacy of diversity programmes in redressing them.
Equality-Difference Feminist Debate
The “equality versus difference” debate was popular within feminist discourse in the 1990s. As the term suggests, the debates were centred around “equality” feminists arguing for equality of treatment of men and women and “difference” feminists arguing for the consideration of the two genders’ distinctive characteristics and thus requiring differential treatment (Pateman, 1992). Liff & Wajcman (1996) highlight the theoretical importance of this distinction for equal opportunity initiatives.
Similar to Williams et al’s (2014) research, Liff & Wajcman illuminate the contradictory interests inherent within these initiatives, albeit through a more theoretically feminist lens. Whilst the management of diversity is meant to imply a positive valuing of difference, some policies are still based on the imperative to treat all genders equally which then require women to deny “differences between themselves and men as the price of equality” (p.81). This not only emphasises the ambiguities inherent in such an approach but also adopts an overly simplistic view on the problems and solutions to inequality. On the flip side, differential treatment aimed at reducing barriers to success are viewed as unfair advantages and perpetuations of certain gendered stereotypes.
However, in line with modern de-constructivist perspectives (Bock & James, 1992), Liff & Wajcman argue that there is a need to move away from categorising these practices into such conventional binary distinctions between ‘equality’ and ‘difference’ which tends towards the exaggeration of homogeneity within each category. There thus lies the imperative to highlight differences within these gender categories and other demographic identifiers such as ethnicity (Wajcman, 1998), calling for a more intersectional approach to this issue.
As my research is focused on gender diversity and the corresponding gendered power relations it is founded upon, a feminist perspective is crucial in the sociological analysis of the interview data gathered. Hence, the above arguments will be used to guide the delineating of themes and frame my final consolidated analysis.
This dissertation adopts a qualitative approach to explore and answer the research questions. Semi-structured in-depth interviews served as the mode of data collection for this research. A total of 11 interviews were conducted. On average, each interview lasted an hour and were audio-recorded on my laptop for purposes of post-interview transcription, with the interviewees’ consent.
The interviews were conducted with the main aim of achieving a rich understanding of internal perspectives on and experiences with the execution and eventual impact of gender diversity management initiatives. Qualitative, in-depth interviews were deemed the most appropriate research method for this research topic as they are well suited to explore lived experiences of complex, nuanced processes (Edwards & Hollands, 2013). Diversity management, whilst long established amongst many organisations in the UK, is certainly no stranger to controversy and can potentially incite divided opinions with sceptics dismissing their processes as mere claims of tokenism (Kanter, 2003) whilst supporters laud its ability to bring about tangible action. Conducting face-to-face interviews with key stakeholders in the corporate diversity space, as opposed to adopting quantitative approaches such as surveys, would thus provide a more contextualised understanding of the various complexities involved in the implementation of corporate gender diversity management strategies (Greene & Kirton, 2009). It also gave me the opportunity to build rapport with my participants. This subsequently allowed for a more candid conversation about their opinions on this issue.
As these interviews were semi-structured, they were held with reference to interview schedules that were tailored to each population sample. Notwithstanding some minor differences the questions primarily focused on the participants’ professional responsibilities, their experiences executing or advising on gender diversity management and their personal perspectives on gender diversity in the workplace (see Appendix A). Having a set of pre-determined questions that were asked in every interview conducted was important in providing a broad structure to the conversations that were held. This was to ensure that the final data collected could be comparable, an issue that can hamper the quality of qualitative analyses such as this.
At the same time, it was also important to be mindful that the structure did not place too much restraints on my participants’ responses. Hence, the questions in the schedule were intentionally kept broad and open-ended in order to allow space for my interview participants to elaborate upon their experiences and perspectives, thereby facilitating flexible, free-flowing conversations. More specific follow-up questions were asked throughout the interviews that built upon the interviewees’ responses. This allowed me to adopt a more inductive approach to the research, as opposed to bringing up these specific topics in the beginning and risking the use of leading questions that would skew the data.
I recognise that the sample size is limited and hence the data gathered would not be fully representative of the corporate gender diversity space, thus compromising on external validity. Whilst this will be reflected upon in the conclusion, it should not pose much of an issue to the overall quality of the final analysis as I seek to produce contextualised conclusions as opposed to universally applicable knowledge.
A three-pronged approach, based on Saunders et al.’s (2003) strategies to negotiate access to organisations and individuals within these organisations, was adopted to facilitate access and to increase the likelihood of a favourable response from the professionals I approached.
Firstly, I established the credibility of my research by providing a clear outline of my project’s objectives, access requirements and expectations of their contribution. The introductory emails I sent to all my potential participants included the option for them to discuss the research project in further detail before the actual conducting of interviews.
Secondly, I noted any potential concerns that my interview participants might have. Two primary concerns were identified as time commitment and topic sensitivity. These were addressed respectively by setting or negotiating a reasonable interview duration and ensuring confidentiality and anonymity of the data collected.
Lastly, I offered to share my final analysis to my interviewees in return for their participation. This provided participants with something of potential value, hence helping to facilitate the securing of their support for my project.
Semi-structured interviews were held with two different population groups to achieve a well-rounded analysis – a) human resources (HR) professionals working in the diversity space, otherwise known as diversity practitioners and b) gender diversity experts or consultants. Participants were recruited through purposeful sampling.
For most organisations, diversity management falls under HR’s remit, with both aiming to strategically attract and manage an organisation’s workforce in order to attain organisational success (Lado & Wilson, 1994). This is conventionally done by managing key practices of recruitment, training, performance management and remuneration (Shen et al., 2009). Therefore, targeting HR diversity professionals for the interviews would be the most suitable and effective way of gaining an in-depth, insider’s perspective on the implementation and impact of diversity initiatives both within and beyond the organisation.
As organisations do not readily publicise their employees’ contact information, LinkedIn was used as the main tool for sourcing these participants. A list of diversity managers and practitioners was drawn from LinkedIn, a social media platform where one is able to look for individuals based on their indicated professions. LinkedIn served as an ideal source as most profiles would have the professional’s contact details that they have made publicly available. This also inevitably resulted in a limited population to sample from as not all diversity practitioners would necessarily have a LinkedIn account and not all professionals would have their details published on their profile. However, given the limitations of access I faced, this remained the most feasible means of recruiting interview participants from this population group.
The contact details of some of the diversity professionals I interviewed were found in jointly commissioned research reports on gender diversity, such as Cracking the Code. These individuals were targeted as their contributions to these gender diversity reports indicate an inclination towards this subject matter, thus implying a greater likelihood of their participation.
As my dissertation is meant to serve as a broad analysis of gender diversity management across the board, I chose not to focus on a specific industry and instead, recruited participants from a variety of different industries. The final population sample consisted of diversity practitioners from the academic sector, the financial services sector and the legal sector. A total of 8 diversity practitioners were interviewed.
Diversity experts are well positioned to provide broad insights into the UK’s occupational landscape as they have worked with different organisations of varying sizes from different industries. This also helped to mitigate the disadvantages of having only recruited participants from three major sectors. Thus, whilst diversity practitioners provided ‘micro’ perspectives, diversity consultants provided a ‘macro’ perspective on diversity management across all the industries they have worked with, contributing to a more holistic analysis of gender diversity management in the workplace.
Organisations that advocate for or consult on workplace diversity were first identified before obtaining the contact details of their gender diversity expects on their website. Similar to the recruitment of diversity practitioners, some diversity experts were also identified and contacted through LinkedIn. A total of 3 gender diversity experts were interviewed.
An inductive approach will be taken for the analysis of the interview data. This was to ensure that the research findings emerged from prevalent, recurrent patterns inherent in the raw data rather than being wholly restrained by previously established themes in extant literature (Thomas, 2006).
Inductive thematic analysis was used, based on Braun & Clarke’s (2006) model. First, initial codes were generated from the data by identifying recurrent patterns present within the interview transcripts. Topics avoided by participants were also noted down as sociologically interesting insights can be drawn from what is undisclosed (Bogdan & Taylor, 1975). Second, I analysed the codes to see how they might form overarching themes and sub-themes. Lastly, the preliminary set of themes was refined and 4 main themes were drawn out, namely leadership programmes concealing systemic inequalities, reinforcement of masculinised norms in the workplace, reinforcement of gender norms in the household and the tenuous nature of diversity’s business case.
Whilst an inductive approach demands that the themes be grounded in and driven by the data that I have gathered, it was important to ensure that the final list of themes generated remained relevant to the research questions and the broader theoretical concerns surrounding this issue as highlighted in the literature review. Hence, the data was categorised and themed as such in accordance to how my participants’ perspectives would fit within extant theoretical and empirical literature.
Confidentiality and Anonymity
Given the potentially sensitive nature of the topic, since they are, in a way, representing their organisations and might possibly reveal information about their employees in their responses, it was important to assure participants that any information provided would be kept confidential and anonymised in the eventual report. This is ensured by anonymising their employers and specific job positions. In the final analysis, they are only identified by randomised participant numbers wherever specific interview quotes are cited.
Prior to the interviews, consent forms (see Appendix B) containing information on the research project and ensuring confidentiality of the interview data provided were distributed and signed by the participants. Participants were also given the opportunity to find out more about the nature of the research project and the information required before agreeing to participate. This was done over email and phone conversations prior to the agreed-upon interview date. This step was crucial in ensuring the informed consent of my interviewees.
Having previously completed an internship in the corporate diversity space myself, I was better able to build rapport with my participants as we were able to ‘break the ice’ quite easily through an exchange of experiences at the beginning of the interview. It also meant that they were more comfortable with the use of corporate diversity jargon and were thus able to provide more in-depth information in their responses.
However, this also meant that I would inevitably have certain pre-conceived notions and assumptions about gender corporate diversity, based on my own experiences. There is thus a potential for confirmation bias here in the analytical process which could compromise on the inductive approach that is sought. Hence, it was important for me to be reflexive throughout the entire research process and to recognise my role as a co-constructor of knowledge (Norris, 1997). In terms of practical measures taken to mitigate this, I actively ensured that my analysis was grounded in information provided by my participants so as to account for any potential researcher bias.
Concealing Systemic Inequalities
“you’re making it a woman’s issue”
When asked what gender diversity initiatives their organisations offered to achieve gender parity, a common approach indicated by my interview participants was that of leadership and career programmes targeted towards women. These programmes were similar across the board in the sense that they targeted high-potential, high-performing senior women in the organisation and provided them with skills training, networking and mentorship opportunities. These programmes had the specific aim of tackling the issue of female underrepresentation at senior levels through the training and retention of the organisation’s female talent pipeline, that was perceived to be “leaking a bit” (Participant 4).
“It is a development programme which involves some instructor led training around some of the key commercial and soft skills that you need in order to be a successful partner…an injection of learning, career strategies, coaching, mentoring.” (Participant 4)
“What I do is to manage the female development programme. (It is a) talent-focused programme designed to help build our pipeline, to achieve the goal of 30% in senior roles…targeting what we identified as developmental needs.” (Participant 5)
“We’re looking at learning and development, particular programmes for women.” (Participant 8)
It is clear from the language and terms that these diversity practitioners chose to use, in particular, the common and frequent use of the words “learning”, “development” and “needs”, that these programmes focus on training the individual, on refining these targeted females’ skills in order for them to be able to succeed and rise through the ranks. This would then enable the organisations to reach their target of greater senior representation. Although limited, given the sensitive, confidential nature of the information, some participants also proceeded to expand specifically upon the positive impact of these programmes on their workforce demographics.
“We’ve seen that 15% of our participants have been promoted and 20% have moved into a new role.” (Participant 5)
At the same time, whilst many participants lauded the success of these development programmes, it was evident in our conversations that there was a latent recognition of the issues inherent in the individualising nature of these programmes. Some even referred to it as a factor that hampered the initiative’s efficacy.
“Some said that it’s wrong to badge it as a women’s programme because you’re making it a woman’s issue.” (Participant 8)
“Career development programmes single them out, reinforces ‘they are women so they need a special programme’. And in a way, it reinforces the problem.” (Participant 9)
Instead of focusing on embedded social inequalities and power relations in the workplace, the rhetoric around this particular application of diversity management concentrates on helping women develop some untapped potential (Collins, 2011), playing down uncomfortable realities and focusing on enabling the individual (Thomas, 1990), who is viewed as requiring a “step up” (Participant 10) in order to be successful. As Wajcman (1998, p.x) argues, “the issue is not that we are different but that this difference is the basis for the unequal distribution of power and resources”. These programmes, whilst perhaps not overtly intending to, imply that there is something inherent within women or something that is common across all women that is preventing them from occupying senior positions in the organisation, as opposed to structural barriers within the organisation.
“I think something needs to change and the only way to start is to push them forward and get them to help themselves a little more.” (Participant 8)
As noted by the diversity practitioners, the organisational impetus to help women overcome the lack of certain skills that will enable them to be successful, whilst not providing the rest of the organisation with the same treatment, is potentially problematic in two main ways.
Firstly, it has the potential to incite backlash from the ‘majority’ or those not targeted by these programmes along with a reluctance to participate from the targeted women themselves.
“Interestingly enough, and I don’t know if you were going to ask this, we often hear from some men saying ‘Why all this attention on developing women? What about me?’” (Participant 4)
“We get women who think ‘We don’t need this, it’s really patronising’” (Participant 5)
“Some academics were adamant and were absolutely against it, on the basis that mentoring implies that the issue is with the individual and not with the organisation or the process.” (Participant 6)
Secondly, it locates the problem in women without questioning the systemic issues within the organisation and fundamentally challenging the gendered nature of organisations (Acker, 1990), thus further concealing and institutionalising these entrenched systemic issues (Wajcman, 1998). This was poignantly highlighted by one of the gender diversity experts I interviewed.
“Women are not the problem, the system is…I feel very enthusiastic to address the systemic causes of inequalities, not just telling women you should be more this or more that. The system just does not work. It’s not for women to adapt to the system that was designed for and by men. The system has to adapt.” (Participant 9)
This is not to say that diversity practitioners have completely ignored the tackling of systemic problems that they alluded to in their responses. Many indicated a shift towards the adoption of unconscious bias training within their organisation. This form of diversity management has gained popularity in recent times. It seeks to raise awareness of micro-actions and micro-judgments that reproduce inequalities and “impact why women are not getting to the top” (Participant 2). However, as such training is targeted towards a larger audience (i.e. the entire organisation), as opposed to leadership programmes which only target a select group of high potential, high performing individuals, diversity practitioners highlighted how organisational resources are more limited with some indicating its resultant limited impact on behavioural change.
“Sometimes in the short term, it (unconscious bias training) does some good but then weeks later, people forget, so I’m very sceptical about the impact of one-off trainings. We don’t have the resources to do regular top-ups.” (Participant 3)
“If you’re looking at the systemic causes, which is unconscious bias, it’s very difficult to tackle. It’s easier to create a leadership programme for 30 people in your company rather than to train the whole organisation.” (Participant 9)
Despite this recognition on the part of the diversity practitioners, it was clear that female leadership development programmes still remained the flagship gender diversity initiative for most organisations. They have been described by interview participants as the best that can be done given the organisational limitations.
“But what can we do? We can’t just change the culture overnight.” (Participant 8)
“Having said that, I understand for many organisations, it is a short fix. Changing the system takes years and if that’s their way of solving gender equality, fair enough, but it’s not sufficient.” (Participant 9)
This also speaks to the business-centric approach of corporate diversity management which can lead to tokenistic solutions and unsustainable results. I will discuss this in further detail in a later point.
“people end up being moulded to that”
Building on the participants’ discussion around female leadership programmes, badging the programmes as being exclusively ‘female’ can result in the greater emphasis of gender differences. Labelling these initiatives as such results in discursive dividing practices which subsequently create binary oppositions (Lorbiecki, 2001) even though there may be some “women ‘who ain’t ‘that woman’’” (Participant 2). This is in line with Williams et al. (2014)’s research that showed how such development programmes reified the notion that men and women had personality differences, which was then implied as the basis for gendered disparities within the organisation. A binary division between men and women is perpetuated and can tend therefore towards the homogenisation of each category.
Considering post-modern de-constructivist approaches to the equality-difference discourse that is implied here, diversity practitioners and experts alike did touch on their organisation’s consideration of intersecting inequalities. However, this was not deemed as a key priority for most organisations. Some mentioned that it was important to factor it in when they are planning their initiatives but struggled to translate intersectional considerations into concrete, actionable steps.
Furthermore, when discussing the topic of intersectionality, the focus was often on differences between women and less so on differences between men. This could be due to the context of these conversations which had, for the most part, been focusing on women. At the same time, this balance of considerations could also serve to homogenise the category of ‘men’, once again emphasising binary divisions and falling back to the equality-feminist discourse that post-modern academics (Bock & James, 1992; Liff & Wajcman, 1996) have deemed to be less than useful.
“Obviously there are double or triple oppressions, so if you’re a disabled woman you’re much less likely to be in work than a disabled man. What you do with that in terms of practical action, what I’m stuck with is what are we going to do differently?” (Participant 3)
“That’s (intersectionality) not something we’ve been focusing on very much…One of our concerns is looking at the women we’re developing, if we have enough ethnic diversity in the females we’re putting forward. To be honest with you, to pinpoint that and to narrow it to that extent is very difficult.” (Participant 5)
When discussing the reasons behind the lack of senior female representation with my participants, there would often be comparisons made between males and females, perpetuating the aforementioned binary division between these two categories. This rhetoric constructs ‘woman as different’ and more importantly, is embedded in the notion of them being ‘different from man’. As Liff & Wajcman (1996, p.x) argue, “to talk about women’s differences is to inevitably engage in what has been called a ‘phallocentric discourse’” which privileges the masculine in the construction of meaning. This phallocentricism was reflected in the interviews where the focus on women’s differences marked them as ‘gendered’ and men as the unremarkable norm. The model of success is implied to be mapped upon masculinised norms such as declarative communication styles and assertiveness, with women “end(ing) up being moulded to that” (Participant 8) in order to achieve success.
“The problem is that men are always the ones shouting about how good they are and women are much less inclined to do that, they find it much more difficult to put themselves forward for things.” (Participant 8)
Such a managerial approach to diversity through development programmes does not have the explicit intention to change the nature of the occupational opportunities available but rather implies an encouragement of more women to be able to fit into these already structured positions.
“These initiatives develop women in a specific way to manage in that environment.” (Participant 2)
The template of the ‘ideal worker’ can thus be seen as a highly gendered one, shaped around hegemonic masculinities with women having to “spend a long time trying to fit in” (Participant 2) a workplace culture that is “pale, male and stale” (Participant 5).
Here, we can see the problematic contradictions between the views of diversity practitioners and the ways in which these diversity initiatives are positioned and, hence, executed. To further explicate this, I turn specifically to Participant 2’s response. She stated that she did not think “men and women’s competencies, in terms of the workplace, (were) actually very different at all” but yet advocated “mentoring circles of women” and “self-development” sessions.
Whilst diversity practitioners did mention the value of difference that diversity could bring to the organisation, the ways in which these leadership development programmes they advocate are positioned reveal entrenched assumptions around masculinised norms that continue to structure the workplace and systemically disadvantage women (Wajcman, 1998; Acker, 1990). This resonates with the highly complex nature of diversity management where there is often a mismatch between structural, theoretical concerns and practical solutions to address them, contributing to the perpetuation of ascriptive inequities.
Participants also noted that broader diversity initiatives, such as women’s employee networks whose membership is open to all and not restricted to women only, are still ‘self-selective’. This meant limited participation on the part of straight, white men. They highlight that there are certain embedded assumptions of diversity being self-serving and thus less relevant to the majority ‘in-group’.
“Sometimes I make the assumption that ‘oh that guy is involved in our diversity network, must be because he’s gay’…You don’t see white straight men; they just don’t care.” (Participant 3)
“There is a perception that sometimes diversity and inclusion specialists are from a disadvantaged background, that there is some form of self-interest.” (Participant 6)
This further emphasises the notion of white straight men as the unremarkable norm, and underrepresented groups (i.e. women) as ‘others’ who are the only ones who need to be involved in diversity work despite a noted importance by my participants for diversity to be “high on everyone’s agenda” (Participant 8).
The Business Case
“diversity can be a window-dressing exercise”
When asked what they felt was the key change in the gender diversity management space, most of the diversity professionals I interviewed mentioned greater recognition and establishment of the business value that diversity brought to the organisation.
“People are actually waking up to the idea that it makes business sense.” (Participant 8)
“We don’t have to explain the business case; they already know it’s important.” (Participant 9)
It was clear from the language they used when describing the importance of gender diversity to their organisation that, apart from diversity of perspectives being a business asset, diversity was also a matter of organisational branding, akin to “badges” of honour and success which “fortunately or unfortunately, leaders like” (Participant 6), and provided the organisation with a competitive advantage (Richard, 2000).
“Good for the organisation, very good for promoting their services.” (Participant 6)
“It is a very competitive environment. Whatever your neighbour is doing, you want to do as well.” (Participant 9)
“Our CEO keeps telling us we need to win.” (Participant 10)
Here, the language used by my participants demonstrates a treatment of diversity as a marketing device and something that can be capitalised upon in order to enhance economic performance. This can result in the ‘glossification’ of diversity (Gewirtz, 1995 cited in Lingard et al., 2003), producing an illusion of fairness that undermines the inherent structural inequalities within the organisation. Indeed, some diversity practitioners noted that there was still a lack of awareness by the majority, ‘privileged’ group (i.e. white, straight and male) who can often underestimate the reality of salient gendered inequalities and perhaps less overt forms of discrimination present in the workplace.
“A lot of men don’t even see it being a problem.” (Participant 8)
“If you ask men ‘are women discriminated against?’, 70% of them will say no. They don’t realise the extent of the problem. There is a gap between their attitudes, ‘oh gender equality is great’, and behaviours, what they’re actually doing about it.” (Participant 9)
This lack of awareness resonates with Kaiser et al.’s (2013) research which argued that the presence of diversity management structures enhances perceptions of procedural justice amongst the majority, ‘privileged’ groups (i.e. white and male), making them less likely to recognise discrimination. This in turn hampers the efficacy of corporate diversity management, as noted by my participants.
“People (the majority) don’t very often just put their hands up and say this (gender equality) is important. That is probably why we haven’t had much progress in the corporate world.” (Participant 2)
“We need to make sure that we are not alienating men or the majority because they need to be part of the conversation and the solutions.” (Participant 4)
When asked to elaborate upon the business case for diversity, participants mentioned the use of accreditation, benchmarking and statistics as ways of holding senior leaders accountable for their diversity agenda, measuring impact which then provides a basis for the awarding of badges and rankings that, as aforementioned, senior leaders have a keen interest in.
“The charter marks provide a structure which is really useful for engaging senior management. You can say that they’ve asked us to do this and they go along with it.” (Participant 3)
“I think the best way to tackle it is to make it a business issue, particularly in our industry (financial services), and back it up with statistics.” (Participant 10)
The widespread use of accreditation and benchmarking across organisations can be said to be a contributing factor towards the audit culture of diversity where diversity work becomes something that is measurable and auditable (Ahmed, 2007). Through these benchmarking exercises, the results of diversity come to be calculable and, in line with Weber’s analysis of the characteristics of the modern economy, becomes bureaucratised and hence impersonalised.
Whilst the business case for diversity is deemed as crucial in effecting change, some diversity practitioners expressed their scepticism with regards to benchmarking exercises and diversity accreditation, which all participants mentioned their organisations had been involved with as part of their corporate diversity agenda.
“Some of the charter marks are awful, like the Stonewall one, they’ve gotten really tokenistic I think. You’re literally ticking boxes.” (Participant 3)
“Accreditation…effect change. It might not be the ideal way of doing it…some people do not think it’s real commitment but at the same time it does ensure progress.” (Participant 6)
Furthermore, whilst it was important that I took the potentially constraining context in which these one-to-one conversations were held (i.e. the interviews were held in the participants’ workplace) into consideration, a crucial observation I made during my interviews was that the diversity practitioners seemed to avoid discussing the more moral, ethical case for diversity. It was mostly mentioned in passing comments and when I prompted them to elaborate upon that point, they would often go back to discussing the ‘business case’. In fact, most deemed the move from the moral to the business case to have been key in driving the diversity management agenda forward.
“The charter marks provide a structure which is really useful for engaging senior management. You can say that they’ve asked us to do this and they go along with it.” (Participant 3)
“When you start building up the business case for it, beyond it’s the right thing to do, that’s when you start getting more meaningful conversations around the table.” (Participant 4)
The rational, economic case for achieving gender parity was viewed by my participants as being key to getting the senior buy-in, when would then “trickle(s) down” (Participant 9) the organisation, whilst the moral case was viewed as a barrier to progress. However, the mixed feelings of diversity practitioners concerning the sometimes “tick box” and “window-dressing” (Participant 3) nature of diversity work reveals their scepticism around the sustainability and depth of the impact that bureaucratising diversity in such a fashion can bring, especially when it can result in the “lack of real commitment” (Participant 6) by the organisation.
Taking all these observations into account, it was evident that there was a recognition of how diversity measurement and the business case can be double-edged swords. Whilst they have brought about “real tangible change” (Participant 5), in terms of incentivising senior accountability and commitment to enable progress, this also potentially depoliticises and de-contextualises the issue by concealing inherent structural inequalities. When diversity becomes bureaucratised and a matter of ‘ticking boxes’, the goal of challenging inequalities is lost and these socioeconomic inequalities become hidden by rational measurements of what constitutes ‘good’ performance, which could be argued to be a very mechanism for their own reproduction (Ahmed & Swan, 2006).
The participants’ avoidance of discussing the ethical case implies a reluctance to confront the uncomfortable truths of embedded power relations that continually serve to disadvantage minority groups within the organisation, much like how leadership development programmes conceal systemic issues, as previously observed.
Beyond looking at the practical applications and operationalization of diversity management, it is also important to consider how the concept of gender diversity is fundamentally understood by organisations in the first place, which I have explored in my findings. These underlying assumptions serve as the foundation for all their initiatives, permeating through them and mutually reinforcing each other. Therefore, the tenuous nature of heralding the business case for diversity above the moral case was seen to be one of the contributing factors behind the difficulties organisations face with regards to achieving greater gender representation.
Reinforcing Gender Norms Outside the Workplace
“if you look at the household and childcare work, the balance, it speaks for itself”
Another key area of focus noted by my interview participants in terms of gender diversity management pertained to supporting women on maternity leave or women who have just returned from maternity leave. Support mechanisms included the provision of coaching throughout and after the period of their leave of absence from work along with flexible working opportunities to help them accommodate their new lifestyles.
“…more tailored things that women do have more challenges, like returning from maternity leave…they have got return to work maternity coaching which I think is a great idea.” (Participant 2)
“We’re now focusing on maternity return to work.” (Participant 8)
Across all the interviews with the diversity practitioners, there was limited mention of paternity leave or the more gender-neutral term ‘parental leave’. Even when it was mentioned, it was mostly done so in casual passing with not much elaboration. This implied that this was not a current priority for the organisations I interviewed. The focus on maternity leave, and lack thereof on parental leave more generally, also reflect the notions of starting a family and child-caring responsibilities as being highly gendered.
Yet, when diversity experts were asked how gender diversity management in the workplace could be improved, they unanimously expressed their concern with this issue and saw the implementation of policies and support mechanisms to incentivise greater uptake of paternity and shared paternal leave as a key area that organisations should be focusing on.
“The involvement of both parents, father and mother, is an important element, not to be seen purely as a woman’s issue. ” (Participant 7)
This is a marked difference from the interviews I conducted with the diversity practitioners, where majority of the conversations were still centred upon the implementation of female leadership development programmes.
This did not mean that diversity practitioners were not cognisant of the potential implications of such unequal gendered expectations. Some mentioned the disproportionate expectation placed on women to bear the workload of childcare as an “old-fashioned” (Participant 4) blocker, albeit without mentioning the implementation of any specific policies or initiatives to counter this directly. Their responses imply that stereotypes around women prioritising family over careers still prevail, concurring with Williams et al.’s (2012) research on female geoscientists which argued that such perspectives absolved any responsibility on the part of the organisation to undergo more equitable restructuring.
“…either as a parent or carer, it is still very often the women that carry the majority of that extra workload.” (Participant 4)
“…male-dominated, very white, pale and stale… therefore the assumptions that they make about women, for example they want to go off and have a baby or women at a certain age will be less committed to their job.” (Participant 5)
Providing support to working mothers who seek to progress in their careers despite having a child and having been absent from work for an extended period of time is “key to whether someone stays” (Participant 8). This, by extension, would be instrumental in keeping these women in the talent pipeline, thus helping to facilitate the drive towards greater female representation at the more senior levels of the organisation. However, it is also important to consider the entrenched gendered assumptions that underpin this and how the focus on these policies, or rather lack of policies supporting fathers, contribute towards the reproduction and reinforcement of these gender norms around household responsibilities that continually serve to disadvantage women in the workplace, despite their tangible achievements.
Instead of challenging these gendered patterns of work/household responsibilities, these policies and initiatives merely help women better manage the dual burden of paid and unpaid labour, the issue which is at the core of the perpetuation of gender inequities in the first place. The current design of family leave policies thus has the potential to exacerbate already substantial gender differentials in paid and unpaid work. This contributes towards the reproduction of the breadwinner/carer dichotomy within modern families, where careers are prioritised for men and women still take on the primary responsibility of caring for the home and family, even in dual career households (Hardill & Watson, 2004). This has been credited as a key contributing factor towards the persistence of senior underrepresentation and the gender pay gap. One diversity expert stated that addressing this would be crucial in changing internal attitudes towards these prevailing gender norms.
“Companies can change norms within their organisation like shared parental leave, it means men can take the same amount of time off work. That changes perceptions massively.” (Participant 9)
As aforementioned, there is a recognition of this issue but also a lack of active steps to address it. A recent BITC (2016) survey revealed that only 44% of UK employers had matched shared parental leave pay to enhanced maternity pay, a key step in increasing more equal uptake of parental leave, and concluded that employers in the UK still had much room for progress in this area.
The lack of proactivity in designing policies and support systems to encourage uptake of paternity leave, as opposed to their current proactivity in designing support systems for women on maternity leave, can be said to be underpinned by assumptions in the entrenched sexual politics of the organisation that hamper the efficacy of gender diversity management in achieving greater gender parity (Sharp et al., 2011). Not only does this relatively passive approach reflect gender norms, it reinforces them, hence further entrenching these labour market inequities as such structural barriers fail to enable attitudinal and behaviour change.
Additionally, the provision of flexible working options, which was highlighted as an initiative under their broader diversity agenda by many of my interview participants, can also be said to avoid changing the relationship between men and women in the household. This is because they are positioned and touted as key to enabling women to enter and progress in the labour market whilst still being able to manage their responsibilities at home. This further emphasises women’s primacy in terms of household responsibilities (Scott, 1999), exacerbating the dual burden that they disproportionately bear.
“…that flexible working piece so how do women balance their career and having a family.” (Participant 5)
The stereotype of women of having to be lead household carers is sustained and continues to limit their career choices and progression under already constraining structural conditions in the workplace. These restricting conditions included the lack of valuable part time job opportunities, perceptions of uptake of part time or flexible work and the ‘long hours’ culture in certain industries, as explicated by the diversity practitioners I interviewed.
“When you work part time, that just doesn’t lead you to senior jobs because you’re not seen as being committed.” (Participant 2)
“Certain roles in investment banking are ridiculous with their hours, others are not.” (Participant 4)
“Partners aren’t often very willing to allow part time work, they feel that it impacts the team and the firm. That’s unfortunately again part of the culture within law. We’ve had a couple of different problems around flexible working.” (Participant 8)
The combination of a relatively passive approach to shared parental leave, pre-existent structural constraints and attitudes within the organisation perpetuate ascriptive occupational inequities by failing to challenge limiting gendered assumptions and divisions of labour upon which they rest on. Even if attitudes of men are shifting and becoming more egalitarian, as Participant 9 notes “men want(ing) to spend more time with their families”, these aforementioned structural barriers fail to provide the necessary avenues to enable change and progress with “companies not responding to” these attitudinal shifts.
My research project aimed to explore the impact of corporate gender diversity management strategies and the reasons behind their limited progress in terms of achieving greater gender parity. Qualitative interviews with stakeholders in this field (diversity practitioners and diversity experts) highlighted important themes and perspectives surrounding this issue. Key theoretical concerns identified in my initial literature review were evident in my research findings and was crucial in the framing of the four key themes explored in this dissertation. These themes included the concealment of systemic inequalities, the emphasis on masculinised norms, the reinforcement and reproduction of gender norms outside the workplace and the impact of a business-centric approach to diversity.
The complexity of diversity management was a recurrent factor throughout my discussion of all four themes, revealing how it is a practice fraught with complicated contradictions and paradoxes. This consequently results in a mismatch between theory and practical action, as often evidenced by diversity practitioners’ recognition of salient, underlying issues with the programmes they are executing, yet with little mention of active steps taken towards redressing them.
An initiative that was commonly brought up across all my interviews was that of leadership development programmes targeted towards women. They were touted as flagship initiatives and key areas of organisational focus. However, the interview data showed how the symbolic branding and positioning of these developmental programmes can imply a situating of the problem within women as opposed to structural processes. Another important area of focus for organisations was that of building substantial support systems for women on and returning from maternity leave. Once again, the interviews, especially the ones conducted with diversity experts, highlighted the problematic nature of placing disproportionate focus on maternity leave as compared to paternity and shared parental leave that have mostly been passively dealt with. These initiatives, whilst clearly not intending to, were shown to tend toward the reinforcement of norms and reproduction of gender power relations that inhibit the attainment of more equal gender representation in the workplace.
Additionally, a point that recurred throughout my interviews, that I had not initially focused upon and identified in my literature review, was that of the implications of focusing on the business case for diversity. The business-centric approach to diversity management, especially when manifested in the forms of charter marks and accreditation, was revealed to be a point of scepticism amongst my participants. The avoidance of the moral case for diversity, which appeared to be the emergent trend, can be said to have de-politicised the issue and once again conceals systemic barriers to gender equality.
Despite the criticisms highlighted in my final analysis, this is not to completely discount the progress that has been made. For instance, the current figure of women on FTSE-100 boards stands at 27% up from 12.5% in 2010, an achievement that has been attributed to the active gender diversity management strategies and senior commitment to the issue of gender parity (“30percentclub.org”, 2017). The shift towards the adoption of unconscious bias training, albeit mostly one-off, also represents a recognition by organisations of the imperative need to deal with inherent, systemic issues as opposed to just adopting a managerial, responsive approach that solely focuses on women and other underrepresented groups.
Nonetheless, the marginal progress made despite consistently concerted organisational efforts and advocacy is a point of concern that must be recognised. It is crucial we consider both the process of executing the organisation’s diversity strategy as well as the assumptions and structures these initiatives were built upon in the first place, something which this dissertation has hopefully achieved in its final analysis of the data gathered.
Given the resource restraints faced in this research project, this meant I had to be realistic about the number of interviews I could feasibly conduct within a fixed time frame, inevitably resulting in a limited sample size. Future research could expand upon this by attaining a larger sample pool of participants in order to gather more insights and to enhance the generalizability of the results attained.
Furthermore, interviews with female employees who have gone through leadership development programmes to explore their own personal experiences with these initiatives would also contribute towards the gathering of richer insights into the complex inner workings of the practice of corporate diversity management.
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Appendix A: Interview Schedule
- How long have you been working in your organisation?
- How long have you been working as a diversity practitioner?
- How have your perspectives on gender diversity in the workplace shifted over the years?
- What are your current job responsibilities?
- What got you interested in the corporate diversity space?
- What types of gender diversity programmes does your organisation provide?
- How would you measure the impact of these initiatives?
- Do you think gender diversity management has been successful?
- Why or why not?
- What are the main issues faced by your organisation/industry?
- Why or why not?
- Have corporate gender diversity programmes been well-received by the other employees within your organisation?
- How do you think corporate gender diversity management can be improved?
- Is there anything else you would like to add about your experiences/perspectives on corporate diversity?
- How long have you been working in your organisation?
- How long have you been working as a diversity expert?
- How have your perspectives on gender diversity in the workplace shifted over the years?
- What are your current job responsibilities?
- What got you interested in the corporate diversity space?
- What are the types of gender diversity programmes commonly practiced by the organisations you consult?
- What are the measures you have advised?
- Do you think gender diversity management has been successful?
- Why or why not?
- What are the main issues faced by organisations?
- Why or why not?
- How do you think corporate gender diversity management can be improved?
- Is there anything else you would like to add about your experiences/perspectives on corporate diversity?
Appendix B: Consent Form
Research Project Title: The Impact of Corporate Diversity Programmes
- I understand that the purpose of this study is to conduct research on the impact of corporate gender diversity programmes and the ways in which individuals experience/perceive them.
- I understand that my participation involves taking part in an interview based on the above research topic.
- The interview will last around 1 hour.
- I consent to the interview being audio recorded and transcribed for analytical purposes.
- I understand that my participation will be completely anonymised and that my identity will not be disclosed.
- I consent to the final research findings being shared with all interview participants.
- I understand that the data obtained from this study will be kept secure through digital encryption.
- I understand that my participation is voluntary and that I am free to withdraw at any time throughout the research process.
- I understand that there is no risk involved in my participation in this study.
Research Participant Declaration
I confirm that I have read and understood the above information. My signature below indicates that I have agreed to take part in this study.
_______________________ ________________________ Signature of Participant/Date Signature of Researcher/Date
 The Equality Act legally protects individuals working in the UK from workplace discrimination on the basis of protected characteristics such as gender, age and sexual orientation.
 The target of 30% senior female representation was common across all the organisations I interviewed and is a widely adopted target that is promoted by advocacy organisations such as the 30% Club.
 The Stonewall Workplace Equality Index is a benchmarking tool for employers to measure their progress on LGBT inclusion in the workplace.
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