Definitions of diversity

This article is part of a series from Good Practice, offered to ICAS members as part of the ICAS mentoring programme.

The task of managing diversity can be a difficult one, and it is made yet harder by the variety of terms used to define it. The fact that language has been identified as one of the key factors in which prejudice can lie indicates the importance of terminology to issues of equality and fairness. It is therefore vital to be sure that your organisation not only sets out its intentions for tackling diversity in a meaningful manner, but that it does so in the appropriate language.

What is Discrimination?

In the UK, equality legislation states that the treatment of all employees must be equal and fair, and that all must be equally valued. Failure to maintain such equal rights and treatment is considered discriminatory. Discrimination can be understood as the treatment of a person in a less favourable way than another person is, has been or would be treated on a variety of grounds relating to their ethnicity, background and social status. The following are some factors around which discrimination issues can arise:

  • gender
  • marital status
  • family status
  • sexual orientation
  • religious belief
  • age
  • disability
  • race
  • trade union membership

Under British law discrimination on many of these grounds is punishable as a criminal offence. However, discrimination law varies between countries, and many international organisations are consequently required to comply with a range of different legal expectations.

What is Diversity?

Diversity may be understood as the mosaic of various groups within an organisation, offering a variety of perspectives and a valuable asset to business. In an organisational context, the management of diversity is the reaction of that organisation to cultural and sociological change. Diversity is managed in a best practice fashion when the organisation provides a flexible response to such changes in the external environment. Internally, diversity will flourish with the creation of a cultural climate where all employees feel that they are equally valued, and are allowed to make an equal contribution to the furtherance of organisational aims.

What is Diversity Management?

Diversity management is the process by which an organisation succeeds in recognising, valuing and celebrating the differences between its employees, whilst ensuring that these assessments are equal and fair. As suggested above, the management of diversity is based upon the belief that by bringing various groups together, the organisation will ultimately benefit from this mix of perspectives, and achieve an advantage over those organisations that reject diversity.

How does diversity differ from equal opportunities?

Diversity builds on the premise of equal opportunities, in order to create equal and fair treatment for every employee within an organisation. It focuses on the needs of individuals rather than of targeted groups, such as disabled people, ethnic minorities or gay employees.

A Summary of Key Terms

Affirmative action was developed to ensure the inclusion of historically excluded social groups through mandatory compliance with quotas.

Collusion is the conscious or unconscious cooperation with others in reinforcing stereotypical attitudes and behaviours.

Discrimination is action based on prejudice, including mistreatment or favouritism.

Diversity is the mosaic of employees from a variety of backgrounds and perspectives that offer valuable contributions to the organisation in which they interact.

Diversity management is the successful addressing of the needs of the entire employee population regardless of any distinguishing factors that are non-work related, to the end of legal compliance, in addition to ethical and business progression.

Ethnocentrism is the belief that one's own group according to cultural heritage, religion, skin colour, etc., is fundamentally superior to another's.

Glass ceiling is an artificial barrier created within an organisation to exclude an employee from senior promotion because of prejudiced opinion regarding his/her gender, race or ethnicity.

Prejudice refers to any instance in which difference is seen as a weakness or disadvantage, and is often the result of a lack of knowledge.

Stereotypes are fixed and inaccurate generalisations made about all members of a certain group regardless of their individuality.

Valuing diversity is the practice of recognising, respecting and valuing human differences.

With these definitions in mind, it is possible to begin to steer a course through the difficult field of diversity management, to create meaningful organisational policies to address the negative issues discussed, and to turn such policies into beneficial action.


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