What’s the Diverse in Diversity?

Consciously Doing EDI

We have been seeing a growing trend of organisations and institutions doing work in the Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) arena. In fact there have been many iterations of this three letter triptych, to reflect this current movement happening within the workplace. From Equality Diversity and Inclusion (EDI), to Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DE&I), Diversity and Inclusion (D&I) or in the reverse Inclusion and Diversity (I&D), to Diversity, Inclusion and Accessibility (DI&A) or as it is used in the US, (Diversity, Equity, Accessibility and Inclusion (DEAI), no matter the iteration or wordplay, each are implicated in and through the other, working towards inclusivity or as we suggest, a better understanding and acknowledgment of the operations of difference.

To illustrate the impact of this critical moment, on last weekend’s Match of the Day aired on the BBC, (1) we hear the commentator informing us, that the reason behind football players taking the knee over the weekend, after the customary weekly act had been relegated to key matches, was to highlight the Premierships campaign “no to racism.” Further in his announcement, he then says it is to highlight “the ongoing commitment to tackling discrimination and promoting equality, diversity and inclusion.” (2) Similarly, we also saw in the international friendly between England’s Lionesses and the US team, players on both sides taking the knee in solidarity with women in the US National Women’s Soccer game, after a damning report exposed abuse and misconduct in the league. Players on both sides not only held a banner which wrote “Protect the Players”, but in addition wore teal armbands to support the victims of abuse.

Whilst both acts of solidarity stand in their own merit, both instances however illustrate how our understandings of Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI), the version we use within this article, can become conflated with other agendas or lost in translation. In these instances, the sign of taking the knee has not only been removed from its original meaning as an anti-racist statement, but now been used as a general descriptor of EDI work and to tackle sexism, respectively. One of the dangers we highlight in this article then, is that EDI becomes synonymous with only addressing racial inequality or rather becomes reduced to describing race.

A good example of EDI in action was illustrated in 2018 conference to accompany the book launch of Inclusion and Intersectionality in Visual Arts Education (3) held at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park (YSP), where a disabled audience member spoke up about the lack of diversity and awareness of intersectionality, when talking about diversity issues. For her, when speaking about diversity, gender and race were talked about to death, however she felt that as a society we were a long way away from getting that same kind of urgency in regards to disability. As one of the contributors to the book and speaker at the event, I was in agreement with her because people tend to speak and see the world from their positions first, from their positionality, so that until we get more diversity, a range of values and bodies of difference in key positions and spaces, we will keep on replicating the same old diversity debates and continuously be perplexed as to why there is slow progress towards inclusivity. Inclusion agendas, as arts advisor and consultant Kate Hatton addresses in Towards an Inclusive Arts Education, ‘are always measurable in terms of what can be delivered to those who are excluded.’ (4). Remember, equality of opportunity is about giving people the same access to opportunities, whereas equity is about being fair in every situation, where the context must be acknowledged.

Diverse vs the non-diverse

So what’s the diverse in diversity?

Back in 2019 the cultural and film critic Clive Nwonka wrote in the Guardian, The arts were supposed to champion diversity. What went wrong? In it he reflects on Arts Council England’s (ACE) annual report on diversity, which revealed “a sector despite the rhetoric, still steeped in inequality.” (5) At the time the report was written, it showed that there was little to no improvement when it came to Art’s organisations in England improving the diversity of their leaders and workers in their workforce. In particular it highlighted that there was slow progress in the representation of black and minority ethnic employees in these positions and similarly, if not slightly worse, there was barely any progress for those with disabilities, which reiterates the earlier point made by the audience member with a disability.

Two key points, Nwonka raises which are important to this article, the first is that when people or organisations are seen to do diversity work, often, it seems like tick boxing exercises. He highlights organisations working towards the business case, however one of the ideas that the article is suggesting, is that you can’t use a business case to deal with people, to deal with staff well-being and engagement. People are not just data, although collecting data and being able to interpret data ethically and correctly are important.

Secondly, he then points out to organisations or people following suit, not because they think it’s the right thing to do, but because they have to do it, in order to hit targets for the business case for example. “Diversity policy has always seemed to be driven by semi-coercion rather than social commitment.” The old adage perhaps rings true here used by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, the famous British writer and feminist, and the author of Frankenstein (1818) when she writes in the notes of Chapter 5 of her 1792 treatise, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, “convince a man against his will, he’s of the same opinion still.” (6) In other words trying to convert the unconverted is futile, they may appear to agree on the surface but underneath, they are still of an opposing opinion and the more and more you try and get them to see from your perspective, unless they genuinely can do so, it will only push them further and further away. An example of this playing out in the workplace is where an employee will do what needs to be done, and speak to being inclusive, yet their actions will be incongruent. Therefore, learning how to reach the unreachable’s is as important as preaching to those already converted. How do you bring everyone on board?

Another interesting point to raise, which is not necessarily the focus of Nwonka’s article, is how the word “diverse” of late, seems to be used in a reductive way. In a linked article (7), English arts bodies slow to become more diverse, report shows (2019), the term is being used when describing the types of leaders that organisations had either recruited or wanted to see, in lead positions. They are referred to as “diverse leaders”, but who is classed as such or rather, how are we contextualising the word diverse? Are we talking about diverse by proxy of identity and if so, which identities fall into the bracket of being diverse? Within the article the reference to diverse leaders was being made after speaking about the rising number of Black and minority ethnic people being appointed to leadership positions, although the article does speak to the lack of representation in relation to disability? More often than not however, we are seeing what appears to be Freudian slippages where diverse or diversity equates to simply speaking about racial difference and even within that, it appears to be very binary.

Therefore, if there is a common misconception over what is classed as diverse, then what constitutes the non-diverse? These conversations hark back to the universalising of whiteness as the norm, that which goes as the unsaid. According to the cultural studies thinker John Storey, by not being seen as raced, white people become the human race:

As such, whiteness is an incredibly powerful cultural construct (not, as we have noted, biologically determined). It is against this norm that all others are invited to define themselves. We might note that white people are seldom articulated as ‘white’, they are just ‘are’. In news stories, if somebody is white they are invariably not identified as such in text. Model. Writer. Director. As opposed to Black model. Black writer. Black director. White people eat food. Theirs is not ‘ethnic food’. They wear clothes. Theirs is not ethnic fashion…. By not being “raced”, they become the human race.’ (Storey, 2009) (8)

And here lies the connection with using the term diverse, where Black and ethnic minorities and all marginalised under-represented groups are to diverse, as whiteness and hetero-normative culture is to the non-diverse.

Or from another perspective, perhaps the diverse which is being spoken about, refers to those who think in alternative ways, or as with most of these discussions, what they fail to speak more of, is on the impact of and performative nature of class in the workplace. Perhaps the diverse leaders reference the class dynamics and inequalities that we see, when we look at the current class backgrounds of those who govern the country.

Take for example the study carried out by LSE back in 2021 on meritocracy, Deflecting Privilege: Class Identity and the Intergenerational Self (9). According to the British Social Attitudes Survey, 47% of Britons in middle-class professional and managerial jobs identify as working class. Even more curiously, a quarter of people in such jobs who come from middle-class backgrounds, in the sense that their parents did professional work, also identified as working class. The study showed that people were too frightened or didn’t want to talk about their upbringing and their privilege and therefore illustrated the performative nature of the workplace:

“In our report, we argue that these intergenerational understandings of class origin should be read as having a performative dimension; they deflect attention away from the structural privileges these individuals enjoy, both in their own eyes but also among those they communicate their origin stories to in everyday life. At the same time, by framing their lives as an upward struggle against the odds, these interviewees misrepresent their subsequent life outcomes as more worthy, more deserving and more meritorious”.

When we talk about inclusivity then, are we taking into consideration these ideas of class and how it is implicated within these discussions. Whilst not listed as a protected characteristic, the impact of such inequalities related to class, can be felt, experienced and amplified within the workplace, depending on which side of the divide one sits on. As we see with the study, one cannot assume that one is from a particular class or not, however the workplace in itself, perpetuates a certain way of being, a code of conduct that caters to what is classed as “professional” and thereby what is classed as “proper”, or in other words, as this article suggests, the non-diverse.

4 Things to ask yourself

1. What is the context of the area you are looking into. What is the gap? If you have a cohort where all of its members are those with disabilities, those that make that group diverse? The question should then be, how do you bring difference into that team?

2. Learn to reach the unreachable’s – Are you speaking to key stakeholders and if so, how have you come to identify them as such? What of those who are not ready or don’t want to be at the table? How do you bring everyone not just onboard but along?

3. The pipeline – This is a long game, not a short game. For sustainable impact, we need to engage with the grassroots and plant the seeds, whilst simultaneously wait for the harvest. Work not just within our organisations but collaborate and partner with others in the life cycle of your EDI journey. For example, in our work with Trustee’s and governance boards, in demystifying their role, we learnt that more often than not, those in governance roles were given votes of confidence to do such roles by others. If this didn’t happen, like that of accumulative advantage, many of us, would not dare to progress into such positions. Therefore, plant the seeds and encourage those around you, especially if you are in positions of power where you can make a difference and give opportunities to others.

4. We often speak about increasing the visibility of representation of minority groups, but could we also ask to increase the representation of the non-visible? By this we mean, what about recruiting on the premise of the ability to touch one another, not in a physical sense, but rather connecting on an emotional deeper level. Connecting through character, kind rather than kin? As Martin Luther King Jnr best put it, “how often are our lives characterized by a high blood pressure of creeds and an anemia of deeds.” (10) Further he says, we must go beyond physical differences, those of racial difference, and rather enlist consciences, character. How then would the landscape of EDI change and our workforces when we work from a place of deeper awareness?



1) Match of the Day, BBC One [Aired 2022/23: 08/10/2022]
2) Ibid
3) Hatton, K Inclusion and Intersectionality in Visual Arts Education. Trentham Books: UCL IOE Press.
4) Hatton, K. (ed.) (2015) Towards an Inclusive Arts Education. London: Institute of Education Press; Trentham Books.
5) Clive, N (2019) The arts were supposed to champion diversity. What went wrong? Guardian Online. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/feb/15/arts-diversity-arts-council-england-inequality
6) Shelley, M (1818) A Vindication of the Rights of Woman
7) Brown, M (2019) English arts bodies slow to become more diverse, report shows. Guardian Online. https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2019/feb/12/english-arts-bodies-slow-to-become-more-diverse-report-shows
8) Storey, J (2009) Cultural Theory and Popular Culture (5th Edition). Essex: Pearson Education
9) Friedman, S, O’Brien, D & McDonald, I (2021) “Deflecting Privilege: Class Identity and the Intergenerational Self”. Volume 55 Issue 4, British Sociological Association.
10) King, M (2010) Strength to Love. (Gift Edition) 1517 Media; Fortress Press Gift edition