Why Diversity is Important in the Workplace

October marks Black History Month in the UK. Every year, Black History Month is an opportunity for people and communities to celebrate Black heritage and culture, and the crucial impact that people of African and Caribbean heritage have had on our society.

The long-standing occasion has been celebrated for a century in the US and approaching four decades in the UK. In 2023, the spotlight is on the achievements of pioneering Black women who have made remarkable contributions to literature, music, fashion, sport, business, politics, academia, social and health care, and other areas. The underpinning theme for 2023 is ‘Celebrating our Sisters, Saluting our Sisters, and Honouring Matriarchs of Movements’.

What better occasion to explore the manifold importance of diversity in the workplace, and the critical contribution of Black women in particular, as demonstrated throughout modern history.

What does diversity in the workforce mean?

Diversity in the workforce encompasses a variety of aspects, including but not limited to race, gender, age, sexual orientation, religion, and disability. These are also legally protected characteristics, and on an ethical level, fostering a diverse workplace is part of being a socially responsible employer.

But promoting and delivering positive diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) practices is not just about ticking boxes and ensuring legal compliance, it’s about creating an environment and work culture in which each employee feels safe and empowered to achieve their full potential.

A diverse approach also makes business sense. Many studies have shown that diverse teams lead to better decision-making, increased innovation, and enhanced financial performance. Bringing together individuals from varying perspectives and experiences can be a haven for new ideas, as well as enabling adaptability to diverse customer needs and evolving markets by having a workforce that is well-equipped to anticipate, understand and respond to the changing landscape.

And yet, limitations and barriers continue to exist. For Black women in particular, a 2023 Women in the Workplace report, co-written by LeanIn and McKinsey, finds that whilst senior leadership teams in the US are boasting a growing number of women, the middle of the pipeline is still lagging, with ‘persistent underrepresentation of women of color [sic]’.

In the UK, a 2021 report by the London School of Economics (LSE) revealed that Black women are the least likely to be among the UK’s top earners compared to any other racial or gender group. Our Diversity in Data 2024 report, set to be launched next month, will give us an up-to-date view of how the data industry is faring in this space and where there is room for improvement.

Celebrating trailblazers

Black women have been at the forefront of the push for diversity in the modern workforce, overcoming significant challenges and trailblazing across sectors. This year’s Black History Month is highlighting some of these inspirational figures through a range of posters that pay tribute to the contributions these women have made to their respective fields.

Among them are Black women who have or are breaking barriers to shatter stereotypes, such as Shirley Chisholm, an American politician who, in 1968, became the first Black woman to be elected to the United States Congress, and, in the UK, Diane Abbott who is both the first Black woman elected to parliament and the longest-serving black MP.

Pioneering voices who have spoken out against injustice include figures such as Wangari Maathai, a Kenyan social, environmental, and political activist who founded the Green Belt Movement and became the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004, and Claudette Colvin, pioneer of the 1950s civil rights movement in America, who was arrested in 1955, aged 15, for refusing to give up her seat to a white woman on a crowded, segregated bus.

Other women celebrated include inspiring figures who have or are transforming the world of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), such as Dr Mae Jemison, the first African American woman to travel into space in 1992, and celebrated British consultant surgeon Samantha Tross, who, in 2005, became the first Black female orthopedic surgeon in Britain and has been included in the Black Powerlist of 100 most influential Black Britons since 2009.

Innovators and entrepreneurs blazing a trail in business, leadership and governance, include British entrepreneur Kanya King CBE who founded the MOBO Awards, John Lewis chair Dame Sharon White DBE, and Dame Linda Dobbs DBE, who was the first non-white person to be appointed to the senior judiciary of England and Wales.

To all these inspiring women, and many more, a debt is owed for the barriers they have broken and the legacy they are leaving in their respective fields.

Where are we now?

There are indications that progress on workplace diversity has stalled, but there are also arguably ongoing movements in the right direction. Among these are organisations such as Black in Data which is striving to accelerate the rate of change towards better equality of opportunity and representation in the data industry specifically.

Equally, obligations on larger employers to publicly share information on gender pay gap reporting is bringing inequalities into the public eye, with the power to shame. In addition, recent plans announced by two financial regulators, the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) and the Bank of England’s Prudential Regulation Authority (PRA), proposed new requirements to improve diversity and inclusion in financial services firms.

The combined impact of initiatives and organisations such as these keep the diversity agenda moving forwards. Diversity training in businesses has become commonplace and many organisations now have chief diversity officer roles in place to keep driving progress in this area.

Technology is another arrow to the bow of the diversity and inclusion agenda, making it easier for companies to recruit and collaborate with individuals from diverse backgrounds, regardless of their physical location and assisting the reduction of unconscious bias. Progress continues, step by step, and by taking a moment to reflect on the trailblazers of the past and present, we keep this journey moving in the right direction.

At Harnham we are dedicated to demonstrating gender equality to employees, clients and candidates. To find out more about DEI efforts and initiatives, visit our website today.

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