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This blog post was published under the 2015-2024 Conservative Administration

Diversity – more than a numbers game

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: Civil Service Learning, Diversity and inclusion
Professor Binna Kandola
Professor Binna Kandola

Diversity is good for business: this is the mantra that's been accepted for many years now.

In fact, the research, when looked at fully, is more mixed than that.

Diversity has certainly been found to make a positive difference to a team's performance. It is the case, though, that there is also research to show that diversity makes no difference to a team's performance, and other research that shows it is actually detrimental to a team.

The negative, and even the neutral, findings don't seem to find their way into official reports, for fear that it may lead to people being unwilling to support diversity programmes. The unfortunate side effect of this is that we fail to use the research to ask a more interesting question: why is diversity good for performance in some situations and bad in others? The answer to this is inclusion, or a lack of it.

Diversity and inclusion

Diversity is a fact of life in the UK that we can't run away from. The challenge we face now is how to create cultures in which everyone, irrespective of their background, feels fairly treated, valued and able to contribute to the achievement of organisational goals. Diversity and inclusion are linked, but they are also different. An organisation can be diverse but not inclusive, or inclusive but not diverse.

During my working life I have seen how the Civil Service has worked hard to be more representative of society. The task that many organisations now face is how to be more inclusive as well as being more diverse at senior levels.

Diversity imageWhere people feel included they are more motivated, more engaged and, not surprisingly, more productive. There are also tremendous personal benefits, with people reporting higher levels of psychological wellbeing  and feeling more resilient. In addition, where people feel a sense of inclusion they are more likely to feel able to speak up when they see things going on around them that they feel are wrong. So, inclusion not only leads to good outcomes, but a lack of inclusion is more likely to lead to poor outcomes.

Bias awareness

If we are to achieve greater diversity and inclusion we need to be more open about the factors that get in the way.

The first is an acknowledgment that bias, both conscious and unconscious, is something everyone is prone to. We are all biased: the world is not divided into those who show bias and those who don't. It is, however, split between those who recognise they are biased and those who believe they are not. It is one of the biggest ironies that the latter group is likely to be the most biased. Acceptance that each of us is biased is probably the most important step anyone can take. Without this self-awareness, bias is always someone else's problem. Bias, especially in leaders, can then lead to the creation, or the maintenance, of a culture in which certain categories of people are less likely to have their voices heard, their opinions listened to and their capabilities acknowledged.

I have never seen diversity as simply being about achieving numerical goals. It is about achieving something more aspirational and inspiring: a culture in which people feel they have been treated fairly. This is easier said than done – but when is anything worth achieving easy?

Diversity, assessment and development specialist Professor Binna Kandola, OBE, is a Business Psychologist, Senior Partner and co-founder of Pearn Kandola. His particular interest is the study of gender bias and unconscious bias in organisations. He is the author of two critically acclaimed books – ‘The Invention of Difference: The story of gender bias at work' and 'The Value of Difference: Eliminating bias in organisations'. Pearn Kandola provide learning on unconscious bias to civil servants through Civil Service Learning.

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  1. Comment by Proper fed-up posted on

    Is there an acceptance that Black African Caribbean and Black British professionals in the Civil Service will remain marginalised and at the bottom of performance markings, opportunity and fair treatment? They always appear to fall off the radar in favour of 'other' 'ies!!!! What about racism? (whether claimed to be conscious or 'unconscious'?

  2. Comment by Graham posted on

    I joined in 1975 and over the years my many colleagues of all skin colours,religious and other differences presumably never existed from some of the stuff Ive read. Amazingly the things we had in common featured regularly.And still do.
    Women were also in the department at grades above me and Ive worked with them as colleagues for years.Interestingly over the years some who seemed very able didnt seem to have said some of the right things (No change to date).As a disabled person it was much easier in early days as you knew who your enemies were and--far more numerous your friends. We have ALWAYS been a mixed or diverse lot. Ironically as staff numbers shrink and I actually see fewer people (For example,far less Scots or Irish (whether from North or South) ) and less of a mixture, the more diversity seems to be an issue.
    Perhaps shockingly "If they are fair people who can do the job well and you can rely on them I dont care whey they originated,colour class ,sex,preferences,or if theyve a disability" and words to that general description has been a general opinion of various people Ive worked with for years.
    If the department actually concentrated far more on getting the right people for the job on their proven abilities,and experience,the better we would be.

  3. Comment by Mark J posted on

    In my experience, those who exhibit the most conscious and unconscious bias are the self-righteous, social justice warriors and third-wave feminists, constantly judging others on scales of privilege and victimhood in accordance with their "diversity" and not as individuals. I'm with Dr Martin Luther-King in his dream of "content of character".

  4. Comment by Sam posted on

    If only the people, who need to, would not only read this but also actually understand just how important it is to believe and demonstrate (lead by example)

  5. Comment by Susan posted on

    Absolutely!!! try working with someone like that!!!

  6. Comment by Susan posted on

    But what happens when the person denying their unconscious bias isn't using it toward less able bodied or ethnic minorities? When it's someone of the same colour skin who just believes that their way is the only way and there's no room for compromise????

    • Replies to Susan>

      Comment by AJ posted on

      Susan, that sort of behaviour should be handled under your internal policies and procedures (i.e. bullying and harassment). Employers have a duty of care to all employees and are responsible for preventing bullying behaviour. A solution for employers is to lay clear boundaries to break this link so that it's no longer effective - and to do so as soon as possible. Discrimination in terms of race, gender, sexuality, “dis”ability etc. are far for serious and intersecting and have far reaching consequences...

  7. Comment by Penny Jackson posted on

    Good article! Also diversity can have many meanings, for example I used to work at an intenational facility which had people from many different countries coming together, and now I work somewhere you have to be a British national and has a strong appeal to white middle class middle age men. Yet the first place attracted thousands of people from across the world who fit exactly the same cookie-cutter personality type, and the second had a much more diverse range of thinking. Sometimes diversity =/= diversity! The first place was also a lot less inclusive, the LGBT network have had posters defaced, it has a few stone age attitudes to women and dissenting views were silenced a lot harder.

  8. Comment by AJ posted on

    Very interesting comments here, and can’t help but observe how very misconstrue unconscious bias is. As our Business Psychology, myself, I I’m a little qualified to give my opinion.

    We all know that the nature of discrimination today is dramatically different from pernicious, overt discrimination that existed years gone by. The discrimination we experience currently, is of a challenging and more subtle nature, and they are displayed in some of the comments here, where people are blaming ethnic minorities (e.g behaviour, attitude, language, even appearance) for the reason they are discriminated against. This form of discrimination is specially tied to the human cognitive process for receiving and storing information; processing incoming information by relying on cognitive shortcuts—in essence, stereotypes (unconscious bias).

    The reason why most ethnic minorities cannot progress beyond the junior ranks is because the majority think it’s all their fault because they display the wrong behaviours, wrong skin type, clothes or even language. This bias, which is apparently unconscious, legitimises discrimination and make it impossible to prove when you are refused promotion or offered a low SPDR box marking because when the above excuses are cited it’s more difficult to prove that your employer was motivated by racial or other animus at the precise moment.

    We do have a very long way to go, as someone working within Talent it makes it impossible to see how the Talent Action Plan can be successful implemented in the Civil Service with such discriminatory attitudes... Good at least that the desire is there, just ask the right (different people) if you want a solution to the old problem, not ones you pay exorbitant amount of money to tell you, that your polices are great.

  9. Comment by Peninah A-Kindberg posted on

    It is a valid question to ask - however in areas where there is no diversity at all?? What influence can be exerted where structures dont support the development of diversity. In some cases where there are too many of the same kind it is said to lead to more segragation i.e. Leicester has been quoted as an example!

  10. Comment by Stephen posted on

    An interesting piece. It made me wonder whether we sometimes fall foul of the distinction between 'diversity' and 'equal opportunity'. The former is about getting the best out of people by recognising, respecting and making productive use of their different skills, background, experience and ways of thinking about the world. To me it is linked closely to inclusion. It's at least as much about what's inside people's heads as it is about external physical characteristics. And it's terribly difficult to measure. The latter is about making sure that no-one is disadvantaged because of their background, it's defined strictly in law, and it's relatively easy to measure (which we should and we do). We therefore have a tendency to use it as a proxy for measuring diversity of thought/approach. But they're not the same thing. It is certainly true that an organisation that is good at equal opportunities is likely to be drawing on people from a diverse range of backgrounds. But it doesn't seem to me that it is a foregone conclusion that that necessarily produces a truly diverse way of working, especially if the organisational culture tends to reward/promote/incentivise/advantage a particular way of behaving. Is there any research that addresses this?

  11. Comment by Safia posted on

    Very much enjoyed this article and found it highly relevant - I think it speaks strongly to the Civil Service recruitment process and an honest assessment is needed of how diversity, inclusion and bias relate to how the CS recruits.

    Firstly, does CS recruitment value diverse skills, background and knowledge? Or does it value competencies that a privileged group of people might already possess?

    Secondly, how inclusive is recruitment and outreach? This is slowly is beginning to change with the Roadshow targeting a wider range of universities. How may exclusivity impact candidates performance during recruitment?

    Finally and importantly, how do we ensure that this inherent bias does not affect how candidates are selected during the recruitment process?

  12. Comment by Paul Harcombe posted on

    so, if you think you have no bias and genuinely believe you treat people as you find, you are the very worst kind of biased because you deny it?

  13. Comment by Charlotte posted on

    Thank you for one of the most honest blogs I have had the pleasure to read. I would be interested in finding out more on the research that suggests that diversity makes no difference to a team's performance and especially case studies that suggest it can be detrimental to a team.

    Really grateful if any links to the research could be provided so I can examine this further.

    again thanks for a very insightful blog.

    • Replies to Charlotte>

      Comment by Katherine - CSL posted on

      Hi Charlotte, we’ve asked Binna for more detail on specific studies he had in mind when writing this blog and will post the links as soon as we have them.

  14. Comment by Sunny posted on

    Jim - I wouldn't say that the fact that the Civil Service's own statistics show that every year, since the performance management system’s introduction, the diversity breakdown of performance markings has resulted in disproportionate numbers of disabled colleagues, Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) colleagues, over 50s and part-time workers (largely women) are receiving unsatisfactory markings and thus less likely to receive pay rises and more likely to be dismissed, is "snake oil". And I don't know about "high paid" either - those coming at it from a HR or line manager angle are on the same civil service pay as anyone else, and those coming at it from a trade union angle (myself included) do it voluntarily.

  15. Comment by Matt Beavis posted on

    Interesting article. Will this criteria be applied to our current government? Because I think they could learn a lot from this. Yes, we have a diverse society in Britain, which is great, but is our government "inclusive"? I'm not so sure.

    • Replies to Matt Beavis>

      Comment by Michael posted on

      If by 'government' you mean the cabinet, how many are women (at least one, Caroline Dinenage), black etc (at least one, Sajid Javid) or LGBT (haven't noticed)? And how does each category percentage wise compare against numbers in the population/workforce?

      • Replies to Michael>

        Comment by Michael posted on

        PS - And are any ministers disabled (not noticed any disabled big names since David Blunkett)?

  16. Comment by Ken Fairbank posted on

    Inclusion should be a two way process - applicable to those (presumably the majority) who would do the including but also to those who would be included. All too often the onus is on the former and ignores the fact that the latter also has a responsibility with regards to potential barriers to inclusion (e.g behaviour, attitude, language, even appearance).

    • Replies to Ken Fairbank>

      Comment by Susan posted on

      As a new qualified counsellor I really enjoyed this article and would love to know the research mentioned. As Ken said inclusion and bias is a two way thing, we unconsciously make judgements and decisions all the time and having an awareness, in the moment, of our thoughts and feelings can give us such a wonderful gift of unique insight into our motivations. I do think though Ken that a power imbalance, even a percieved power imbalance between management say and the masses can be present and this can present all kinds of unconscious behaviour.

    • Replies to Ken Fairbank>

      Comment by A Davidson posted on

      Ken Fairbank raises an interesting comment reference the majority and minority segregation with the minority being so 'pidgeon holed' because their: quote, (e.g behaviour, attitude, language, even appearance). Surely the point of it all is that the unconscious (if we are lucky) or conscious bias being applied IS from the so called majority. An individual does not need to comply with the limited view of the world imposed upon them to be valued, heard and accepted. The whole point is that we all have the exact same 'rights' to be treated as individuals; with dignity and respect no matter whether we are black, white, male, female or trans. How we present is nothing to do with anyone else and is truly irrelevant. Anyone thinking otherwise should seriously consider their outlook

      • Replies to A Davidson>

        Comment by Geth posted on

        Yes, we're all individuals. Yes, we all have the right not to comply with a perceived norm. Yes, we can present ourselves as we wish. But how does that sit with the desire to be included? If anyone wishes to be a part of a team, he or she has to share that team's values, not just its goals - and not only in a work context, otherwise the gap will show. Someone wrote earlier that inclusion is a two-way thing. I agree.

        • Replies to Geth>

          Comment by Susan posted on

          If we look at at evolution we have drives that mean to be 'excluded' from the group or pack mean to be undefendedand potentially to startve, so being part of a bigger group and effectively not standing out works with this unconscious drive...
          However.. being judgemental and presuming, stereotyping because of what we see of a person and what are past experiences have led us to believe need to be challenged. We can change these thoughts by using awareness of what we say and think and why.

  17. Comment by John Edmondson posted on

    A brilliant thought provoking article by Professor Binna Kandola. As a person who studied Religion and Anthropology at University, I completely agree with him when he talks about bias awareness. If we are aware of the lens through which we view the world then we are less biased than those who are not aware. This is because we can acknowledge our bias and make allowances for it.

    • Replies to John Edmondson>

      Comment by Geth posted on

      But will consciously making that allowance detract from the intrinsic human trait of personality judgement? Can it override the strong inner feeling that a person is just not right? Will that judgement always be felt to be wrong because of a perceived bias when there may be a good case for that judgement to be applied?
      Difficult to resolve the inner turmoil in, say, a 40 minute interview.

  18. Comment by Jim Nobody posted on


    Rerearch is showing the diversity industry is flogging high-priced pseudo-scientific snake oil. Please don't stop paying us... because <reasons>.