Culture

The corporate world is getting ‘diversity’ all wrong

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The fashion world has had its fair share of faux-pas when it comes to diversity and representation. A recent blunder from Louis Vuitton confirms that corporations, regardless of size and global reach, continue to be euro-centric to the point of obliviousness.

Though no longer on its website, Louis Vuitton’s ‘Jamaican Stripe Jumper’ has caused outrage. The brightly coloured (and expensive) item of clothing was a seeming attempt to pay homage to the flag of Jamaica – but unfortunately, someone had got the colours wrong.

In attempting to explain what had happened, Louis Vuitton dug yet a bigger hole for itself, saying that the jumper was actually meant to pay homage to the Ethiopian flag. 

In ending this massive palaver by admitting to conflating Jamaica and Ethiopia, the only flag Louis Vuitton was waving was a big red one. 

As we know, this kind of behaviour is not uncommon. Who can forget Dolce and Gabbana’s culturally insensitive advert depicting a Chinese woman struggling to eat pizza with chopsticks? Or Gucci’s awful jumper resembling blackface? What about that time H&M dressed a young Black child in a ‘Coolest monkey in the jungle’ hoodie for a promotional shoot?

It’s not just fashion companies who are at fault; other corporations can be far blunter. Only very recently, reports were leaked that the chair of KPMG UK had dismissed the concept of unconscious bias as ‘complete crap’.  

But I think what we find horrifying and fascinating in equal measure about some of the aforementioned communications catastrophes is how such clear mistakes ultimately received internal sign off. A similar shock was felt when Number 10 released a now-pulled ‘stay at home’ advert depicting only women doing domestic chores (while a solitary man lay on the sofa). When we as outside observers see these terrible missteps, we are disappointed and shocked – largely because we can’t believe that these organisations don’t appear to contain a single person who could have spotted these disasters in the making. 

When we look at organisations’ misplaced efforts to represent diversity – whether that be of ethnicity, gender or sexuality – we often centre on the very true and very important facts around workplace representation. 

Just 3.2% of CEO roles in the FTSE 250 were held by women as of October 2019, and there are more men called Stephen heading up the UK’s top hundred companies than there are women. Women earn just 81p for every pound that a man earns. 

When it comes to ethnic diversity, the corporate world does no better. White employees are more likely to be promoted at work than their ethnic minority counterparts, and ethnic minority employees are more likely to be underemployed or overqualified for the roles they hold. 

These statistics tell us that diversity in the workplace is not as it should be. But more than signalling a lack of representation, they indicate a lack of representation where it most matters

It’s not enough for an organisation to simply broaden its pool of ethnic minority employees or hire more women; organisations need to ensure that diverse voices are integral parts of the senior-most echelons of a business. The facts tell us that minority ethnic and female employees are not represented in senior positions nearly as much as their white, male counterparts. It’s what accounts for the significant gender and ethnicity pay gaps we see across society. And the issue doesn’t end there. It is bad for BAME and non-male employees if they find themselves disadvantaged in terms of pay, and this pay disadvantage coupled with a lack of diversity in senior roles is bad for society at large.  

You see, even if an organisation has reasonable proportions of BAME and female employees (and employees from diverse socio-economic backgrounds), this won’t be enough for that organisation to become truly diverse in its outlook unless it ensures these employees’ voices are represented across the business at all levels. The lack of diversity in senior roles is why huge communications faux-pas are signed off. As I mentioned, whenever such blunders are made, people routinely express disbelief that no-one in the organisation seemed to be able to see the obvious awfulness of the materials produced – but often that’s not true. Corporate culture can easily become an echo-chamber when the only people with decision-making power all look like, think like and sound like each other. As a junior, you may feel that your only options are to either turn a blind eye or become an echoing assenter. 

As a junior, non-white and female employee, I have often had to watch painful attempts to put ‘diversity’ on the agenda. For example, a former workplace of mine set up a global ‘diversity commission’, but because none of its senior leaders were non-white, no-one on the commission itself was non-white. As we were lectured about diversity and inclusion, myself and my other non-white colleagues (and there were many of us at junior levels) stayed quiet. We knew our voices didn’t really matter. When the commission made a ‘lunchtime cultural potluck’ the first item on its diversity agenda I (understandably) couldn’t muster the enthusiasm to participate.

Diversity should not be a marketing or recruitment ploy – though far too often it is. Natalie Morris highlights this in her investigation into diversity schemes – tokenism is the operative word here, while real issues and inequalities in the workplace continue to fester. And yet we know for a fact that diverse leadership teams are significantly better for business; as well as being good for society, diversity is good for the corporate world – it’s a genuine win-win. 

And it’s something organisations have to start investing in. If an organisation has female and ethnic minority juniors, but not seniors, we must ask why. It is not the fault of ethnic minority and non-male individuals that they may leave workplaces, but the fault of workplaces that are often hostile and unprepared to listen to the views of juniors – especially when those juniors want to say something different. 

We don’t need any more Louis Vuitton moments; it’s time for the corporate world to get in gear. 

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