Central to this is how diversity and inclusion practices have taken a political project with emancipatory and egalitarian goals and translated it into a managerial project wedded to commercial outcomes.
This managerial obsession helps to distance companies’ responsibility from broader structural inequalities present within them, and prevents real change. It also depoliticises the struggle for equality, so diversity and inclusion practices have not resulted in structural change that addresses underlying discrimination and exclusion.
Diversity and inequality programs too easily become what we call a ‘repressive equality regime’. The problem is not so much the realities of inequality, but the vision of what equality means. These ‘regimes’ stand in the way of progress because they repress the true political meaning of equality from being articulated and acted on.
We have no reason to believe that organisations focusing on improving diversity and inclusion are not well-intended or make a difference for some people, especially when the promise of individual progress is an incentive. However, in its current form, the managerial practice of diversity and inclusion can prevent structural change by muting the sound of dissent and failing to challenge a fundamentally unequal status quo.
In other words, even in the most progressive organisations, their diversity and inclusion practices inadvertently can end up perpetuating inequality.
So, what can we do about this? Commitment from leaders to establish mutual trust and lines of responsibility are a good starting point, and that is increasingly present in many organisations. But that is not enough.
Beyond senior commitment is the need to face the hard realities of inequality rather than celebrating success stories. Company leaders need to own up to organisational injustice by making inequalities highly visible and calling them out as illegitimate and wrong.
If managers are going to lead in ways that address inequalities in the workplace, we need a radical political project. What we have now is a managerial project couched in terms somewhere between harmony and the “business case” for diversity. It is not good enough.
Beyond the business case
Equality is a basic human right and if an organisation engages in it for commercial self-interest, they fundamentally fail to understand what it is really about. Instead, organisations need to be held to account for their responsibility to the broader community they are a part of.
A shift from a managerial approach to an approach that embeds diversity into the heart of a company’s purpose, strategy and values requires them to accept the challenging goal of disrupting the status quo of privilege and injustice. For many, embracing an agenda of radical equality would be uncomfortable.
Moving beyond corporate inertia so that equality and diversity practice sheds its managerial project approach and embraces its political meaning is required. This means leading not as a distant and abstract management process, but in a transformational way with and for others.
Business schools can lead the way in this shift by helping managers and leaders understand that without this change, their good intentions and organisational equality regimes will remain as they are now: repressive rather than emancipatory.
Celina McEwen is Adjunct Research Fellow at the University of Technology Sydney; Alison Pullen is Professor of Gender, Work and Organisation at Macquarie University; Carl Rhodes is Dean of UTS Business School at the University of Technology Sydney.