John Humphrys - Diversity or Meritocracy: what matters most?

March 22, 2024, 3:02 PM GMT+0

The scene is an exclusive gentlemen’s club in an exclusive district of London. The ageing members are nodding in agreement as one of their fellow members holds forth on the many iniquities plaguing the modern world of work.

“Far too much of this diversity nonsense these days!” he barks. “Can’t get away from it for love nor money. Everywhere you look there’s some overpaid so-called ‘consultant’ banging on about the need for more ‘diversity’ and ‘inclusion’ and ‘equality’ and telling the company’s directors they need to employ more specialists to organise more training days to teach everyone from the shop floor to the blasted board room to show a bit more respect for each other. Waste of bloody money if you ask me! ”

Something of a cliché, you might say. Hasn’t it always been the case that a certain section of the older generation – particularly those who have long since lost patience with the strange behaviour of the young – enjoy finding fault with their namby-pamby expectations? And one of their favourite targets in recent years has been so-called “diversity training”. In their most bellicose moments they might describe those who make large amounts of money from supplying training courses in such areas as diversity, equality and inclusion as “snake oil” salesmen.

Indeed they might. But what makes the latest attack on this “industry” so intriguing is that it comes not from some ageing right-winger who remembers fondly his all-white, all male, all British public school but from a young woman. A young black woman, the daughter of Nigerian immigrants who helped pay for her education by working part-time in McDonalds, who became a Conservative MP and is now a cabinet minister. She is the secretary of state for business, minister for women and president of the Board of Trade. Her name is Kemi Badenoch and she has just launched an attack on the diversity training industry every bit as ferocious as anything you might hear in one of those gentlemen-only clubs.

Ms Badenoch has endorsed a report, commissioned by the government, which concluded that British companies should stop wasting money on diversity training in the workplace because it is “ineffective” and often fails to achieve its stated objectives. The panel of experts found that companies too often outsourced or delegated their equality training to those with “potentially conflicting incentives” that had a “proliferation” of different initiatives.”

She did not exactly hold back. Some groups and companies that are offering diversity training, she said, are making large amounts of money selling “snake oil”. Here’s how she put it: “There are lots of people who just cook up stuff and say, ‘Oh, I’ve got a course. Why don’t you buy my course?’… They’ve been making money out of selling stuff that is not evidence-based.”

The report cited research which shows that the UK employs almost twice as many diversity and inclusion workers per 10,000 employees as any other country. In the public sector, it says there are more than 10,000 public diversity and inclusion jobs. The cost is £557 million a year.

It quotes from one academic study that found an “absence of meaningful or durable improvement in organisational culture and workplace morale” as a result of diversity training. It said it also failed to improve the “hiring, retention or promotion of diverse candidates”.

It acknowledges that employers have a duty to “fully grasp and apply the law” but says it is not their responsibility to have a “sophisticated knowledge of the demographic, historical and socio-economic debates relating to the relative advantage and disadvantages between groups”. Neither, it says, should companies “outsource or delegate this to those with potentially conflicting incentives”.

So perhaps the answer lies in companies investing in more diversity training? Quite the opposite, according to this report. Such training, it found, often failed to result in a “meaningful or durable improvement in organisational culture and workplace morale”. It did not increase collaboration and failed to improve hiring, retention or promotion of diverse candidates. The approach of many organisations was “driven by pre-existing notions, assumptions and pressures rather than empirical evidence.”

Pamela Dow, a former civil servant who led the panel, said it had concluded that the evidence for the effectiveness and value for money of diversity and inclusion strategies were either “very minimal” or in many cases “absent” At its worst, she said, diversity training “offers a facile solution, which only gives an illusion that something is being done… Many managers said they were scared of saying the wrong thing or ending up in an employment tribunal or shamed on social media, not least because the advice of the training or codes can be contradictory.”

The timing of this report and Badenoch’s endorsement of it may well be greeted with scepticism by her political opponents. Labour has committed itself to extending the rights of so-called “BAME” workers (black, Asian and ethnic minority). There would be a new law that would give them the same rights as those enjoyed by women. Labour promises consultations with business groups and unions and says the new rights would be phased in to give employers time to adapt to paying all their staff fairly, with back pay only available from when the law actually changes.

Anneliese Dodds, the shadow women and equalities secretary, says racial inequality has soared under the Tories. BAME families, she claims, were disproportionately hit by the pandemic and the cost of living crisis and are on the sharp end of cuts to the NHS, education and the criminal justice system. They are, she says, “working harder and harder for less and less. This is holding back their families and holding back the economy.”

The proposals would enact protections against “dual discrimination”, where people face prejudice because of a combination of protected characteristics. A black woman who faces sexism and racism or a Muslim woman abused for wearing a headscarf, for example, would be able to bring one discrimination claim, rather than one for each protected characteristic.

Labour says this would have broader benefits for different groups of people, including women experiencing discrimination during the menopause, as well as easing backlogs in the tribunals system. The new act would also place a duty on public services – including the NHS, police, schools and councils – to collect data and report on staffing, pay and, where relevant, outcomes, by ethnicity. Any pay differences between racial groups would have to be reported and police officers and staff would have to undertake anti-racism training. The school curriculum would be reviewed to ensure it is diverse.

So the battle lines are clearly drawn. Labour’s priority is equality and diversity. The Tories’ priority is meritocracy.

Dr Shabna Begum of the race equality think tank the Runnymede Trust, is clearly in the Labour camp: “Labour’s race equality act signals a much-needed pivot from the years of regressive and harmful policies we have seen under successive governments. We welcome many of the commitments including those that address discrimination in the workplace, the lack of representation in our school curricula, as well as the promise to enact the principle of dual discrimination – finally recognising the interactive ways that discrimination can operate.

“However, the plans fall short of addressing the formidable scale of inequalities that shape the experiences and opportunities of people of colour. Committing to address structural racial inequality needs to understand that racism doesn’t simply arise when the system fails – but that racism is actually sewn into the very fabric of the system itself.”

But here’s how Melanie Phillips put it in The Times: “Of course, everyone should be treated with respect and without discrimination. However, the diversity agenda has virtually nothing to do with fairness and everything to do with abuses of power. It institutionalises inadequacy and unfairness. Instead of appointing people on merit, it involves privileging approved groups over others — the very definition of prejudiced discrimination.

“In universities, it discriminates against well-qualified students in favour of those who don’t measure up intellectually but gain a place on account of their ethnicity or other perceived forms of disadvantage. The result of shoehorning on to university courses so many unable to cope with their studies has been a steady decline in education standards from the top downwards.

“The diversity agenda bestows impunity upon favoured groups by claiming that any criticism of them constitutes discrimination. As an ideology that brooks no dissent, it destroys rationality itself by refusing to acknowledge evidence that contradicts its claims. Above all, it won’t accept that its supposed “anti-racism” is in fact a profound prejudice against white people.”

So where do you stand? Do you (privately perhaps) identify with my caricature of the boorish right-winger inveighing against the diversity lobby or (more publicly) with those who are uneasy that it’s white people who are paying the price of an obsession with “diversity”? In short, should we be more concerned with meritocracy and worry rather less about diversity?

Do let us know what you think.

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