Workplaces are becoming polarised and it’s impacting equity

3 minute read

Diversity, equity and inclusion has become a critical battlefield as populism increases and the culture war intensifies. Matt Dean looks at how this is playing out in the workplace and what HR professionals can do about it

Three men of differing heights standing on boxes so they can all see over a wall to a football match

Without doubt the increasing polarisation of wider society is impacting people at work.

People have less tolerance for others’ views; seem increasingly unwilling to accept that situations contain any shades of grey; and have little or no interest in understanding different perspectives. 

This underpins much of the increasing amount of conflict in workplaces we’re seeing at the moment – whether it surfaces when debating remote vs office working, or when a sensitive societal issue enters a digital forum like Slack, and people forget they’re at work.

This polarisation is also going to further slow progress towards equity in the workplace. In fact, we may see equity being lost as a laudable goal.

The existence of DEI becomes part of the culture war

Polarisation has been driven by the rise of populism and the culture wars that populist politics incite. Humans are instinctively tribal and populism plays on this encouraging people to believe issues are black and white, to see others (including colleagues) as either with or against them. 

Sadly, the idea of DEI itself has become a critical battlefield in these wars.

This year US states (led by Florida and Texas) have banned DEI offices, programmes and training at public universities because programmes are exclusive, ineffective and considered politically charged. Meanwhile, the UK’s Business Secretary Kemi Badenoch has supported the view that many DEI initiatives are ineffective and counterproductive. This was after the Chancellor told Councils to ‘scrap woke diversity schemes’ in his budget speech.

How equity, in particular, suffers

In DEI everyone understands that the ‘D’ (diversity) is important. Don’t put all your eggs in one basket – have a diverse portfolio (of talent). Twenty-odd years of explaining it to sceptical people has taught me that people generally understand the need for ‘I’ (inclusion) too: The importance of everyone, whatever their background, feeling that they belong, feeling safe, valued, respected. This improves performance. Evidence is strong on this. 

It’s the ‘E’ that causes problems. E isn’t Equality, because treating everyone the same isn’t really feasible, nor does it make much sense as a strategy for optimising performance. E stands for equity – tailoring treatment. 

There’s a well-known equity visual showing three people of varying heights trying to watch a football game over a brick wall. In the first picture they all stand on the ground. Only the tallest can see over the wall. In the second picture all three stand on a small box. The taller two can now see, the shortest can’t (despite their box). In the third picture the tallest person stands on the ground, the shortest stands on two boxes and the person in the middle stands on one. Everyone is being treated differently and all three can see the game.

With polarisation now accelerating and becoming part of working life we see culture warriors condemning this sort of affirmative action, embedding it into their war. Ms Badenoch recently said: ‘No group should ever be worse off because of companies’ diversity policies – whether that be black women or white men.’ 

A case in point – gender neutral parental policies

A real life example of this backlash towards equity comes from the legal industry.

Law firms generally have poor gender statistics. For over 30 years there have been more women than men entering the profession, but a realistic estimate of women making it to the most senior partnership positions is less than 20%. 

Motherhood is universally accepted to be the main cause - it’s when most firms haemorrhage female talent. Because women face a string of obstacles and assumptions about their motivation and availability when they return. Their work allocation suffers greatly and they don’t get the support they need. Nothing comparable happens to men. In fact there’s a strong argument that there’s a motherhood penalty and a fatherhood bonus for recent parents. 

BlueSky, a parental coaching platform start-up for women in law, has designed and runs a hugely effective programme that provides support to a cohort of women from different firms throughout their maternity leave. It blends coaching and critically important networking. It’s early days but their data is hugely impressive.

But many of the DEI professionals they pitch to question whether the offer could be made gender neutral. They are doing this because of the pressure from people like Ms Badenoch.

Abandoning a proven fix – which the data shows is keeping women in law – in order to protect men from the discrimination of not being protected from an evil they do not face, makes no sense. 

The simple truth is that the impact of parenthood on a career in the legal industry is not gender neutral. An equitable approach is required instead, with specific support for women.

Tackling polarisation and preserving equity

The DEI profession needs to stand firm here and preserve an equitable approach – supporting people to overcome the actual challenges they face.  

Returning to the visualisation of people standing on boxes to watch the football game, we need to recognise that when we introduce an equitable solution none of the people trying to watch the football game is worse off – certainly not the tallest person because they could see the game all the time. 

In fact, the obvious argument is that they are now better off – in an organisation where everyone can see the game (and presumably overall performance is improved).

Addressing the wider negative impacts of polarisation is a whole other fight – reminding people that integrity requires people to focus on different viewpoints, helping them to disagree better. 

But addressing the idea that tailoring solutions for particular groups can benefit all is an important place to start.

Matt Dean, pictured below, is founder of work behaviour and culture specialists Byrne Dean

Matt Dean Byrne Dean

Published 23 April 2024
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