Once banished to the margins of business management and leadership, equalities and diversity policies have now moved from a niche to a central role of any leader, Chief Executive Officer, or politician and other roles.
We’ve come a long way from the days of the wave of legislation in the seventies; I’m thinking of things like the Sex Discrimination Act (1975), the Race Relations Act (1976) and Equal Pay Act (1970). We have travelled far in the forty years since then with more nuanced legislation continuing to keep apace with social attitudes, which have also changed considerably. However, where conflict, uncertainty, fear and tension remains in society and the workplace, equalities issues, discrimination and prejudice will never be far behind.
Some recent events in the business and political worlds are useful examples of how such issues are now central to the work of all leaders; that equality and diversity is an essential part of every leaders’ tool-kit. In the past, I’ve noticed how a bank published its approach to diversity and inclusion; how a gay CEO of a national airline spoke about the importance of being yourself at work. And how an advertising agency chair was criticised for views about gender bias in the advertising industry, and an MP quoted as suggesting male childcarers ‘may be paedophiles’. These examples demonstrate the benefits of being an aware and equalities focused leader, and the pitfalls of perhaps getting the message wrong.
In modern times, what has exposed many outdated and discriminatory views is the advent of social media, where public messages are not sanctioned or sanitised by corporate PR or policy teams, and people have access to methods to directly share in an unedited instant their own unaware views or conscious and unconscious prejudices. Equalities is a journey, and people can make mistakes as their awareness develops and challenges the views and beliefs society and the media makes such a powerful job at entrenching in all of us.
Mistakes are fine to some extent, as long as we learn from them. Mistakes can lead to lack of career opportunities, sackings or suspensions, a public message you are out of touch, and greater distance from the customer or service user. They can cause share prices to plummet as well.
For early years, we must continue to place great emphasis on equipping everyone to be confident anti-discriminatory practitioners (uniquely still a requirement of the Children Act 2004 on all our delivery). We are also tasked with promoting British Values throughout all our work, and meeting the Prevent Duty (to identify individuals who may be at risk of being radicalised). Many things that many other professional roles could learn from and support.
The gains are that children can be supported to feel safe and confident, and reach their full potential; we can attract and retain a diverse and happy workforce, with open and honest communications and thinking; and become close to parents and families, customers or service users and better understand their needs. And in doing so, climates are created that achieve trust and safety. The essential foundation required to achieve real change.
Never has equality and diversity awareness and training mattered most, especially as we are in an era where tolerance ensures everyone is respected and included, yet held to account for prejudice, hate-crimes and extremism. Regular training is key, as is reflecting on ourselves, and the views of others – including our shared and real lived experiences. What’s also important is teams, organisations and businesses create cultures where equalities can thrive in centralised culture of respect. That’s the role of a good equalities leader. Of any leader.