Thursday, September 23, 2004


"The D-word is acutely fashionable. And like many words made popular by management consultants, it embodies not a precise concept, let alone something concrete, but a feeling. It seduces by its very vagueness. Because no one really knows what it means, it has acquired a certain mystique, and now everybody’s using it. You can barely move for diversity action plans and diversity monitoring grids in modern public organisations. It’s a good example of a modern-day shibboleth, a code used among members of the same clan, a word used to identify loyalty to, in this case, a project to spread niceness to the four corners of the kingdom. And it’s fair to say that diversity is often used simply as a synonym for niceness. In order to embrace diversity, an organisation must make sure that ‘individuals are valued’ and that the office is a place where ‘harassment, bullying and discrimination are not tolerated’. Far be it from me to suggest these are fairly obvious requirements of any workplace and always have been. We may ask whether or not they have been fulfilled, but why dress them up and parade them under a new banner, accompanied by laws, taskforces and spurious new roles? If you work in Whitehall and you don’t already have an ‘office diversity champion’, the chances are you soon will.

The reason? It’s the unfortunate tendency of the people in charge to want to do something about everything. The assumption that all of society’s problems are amenable to state intervention is a delusion that some governments suffer from more than others. The current administration falls into the former category. They look at our miserable lives and feel responsible, feel that something must be done. They rarely ask whether or not they are the ones best placed to do it.

Reams of paper are produced that might as well be burned on an altar to the diversity god for all the good they do. A ‘Diversity Feedback Questionnaire’ that once landed on my desk asked respondents to rate the importance of various statements from one to five (though it helpfully indicated that if you were unable to provide an answer, entering zero would be fine. Presumably they feel that there is no such thing as a useless statistic). The statements to be rated included these: that ‘individuals are valued for the diversity they bring to the work of the unit’ or, ‘senior management are committed to creating an environment which values diversity’ or, indeed, ‘individual employees within the unit behave in a way that supports diversity’. Erm ...if only I knew what diversity was. Substitute ‘niceness’, however, and you get a reasonable idea of what these people are trying to find out: are we nice enough?

We may moan and groan, even fall about laughing at these little absurdities. We may persevere in refusing to take the idea of a diversity champion seriously (though we risk being accused of un-diverse behaviour, a phrase I heard used at a workshop I had been forced to attend). But there is a more serious side to all this. Some of these activities may create resentment against the very groups of people they are trying to help. And it goes without saying that much money is spent on training programmes aimed at helping those assumed to be labouring under the burden of racism or sexism. Women just below senior Civil Service level receive ‘coaching’ and ‘mentoring’, while ethnic-minority fast-streamers are given the opportunity to attend extra classes on how to get ahead that are unavailable to their non-minority colleagues.

The problem with these schemes is that they are open to a very subtle, but ruinous, form of abuse. Like all forms of social engineering, they do not take account of individual circumstances. Who’s to say that a woman given the extra coaching she needs to get that promotion to the top stream isn’t already in a better position than her male colleagues? She may be rich, or particularly well connected. Similarly, an organisation that automatically sees race as a disadvantage is blinded to the other factors that may be at work. Judging someone by one standard alone and ignoring the fact that they went to St Paul’s and their daddy’s a heart surgeon tends to favour middle-class people who happen to be black or Asian, rather than those who are really struggling. And do we really believe that someone from Northern Ireland or Wales should be entitled to extra training because of their race? I have seen people play the system in this way, but who can blame them for taking advantage of a free leg-up? ....

The diversity agenda is largely concerned with preventing active discrimination, which it assumes is the main reason there aren’t more women or minorities in senior positions. Active discrimination, when people make decisions based on negative prejudices about a certain group, is unacceptable and should be punished severely where it is discovered. But it constitutes only a small part of the reason minorities stay out of senior roles. Most of the time, they decide for themselves not to embark on the road that might lead them to power and responsibility. People, after all, tend to conform to the expectations society has of them. Race is rarely as salient as class in determining aspiration and whether or not we feel comfortable in positions of power and responsibility. A higher proportion of ethnic minority families have lower incomes. It is because of class, then, not race, that they underachieve."

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"The vast majority of Australians believe that parents should be allowed by law to smack naughty children older than five, according to research presented at a major international child protection conference yesterday.

In a paper delivered at the International Society for the Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect conference yesterday, Australian Childhood Foundation head Joe Tucci said 70 per cent of Victorians surveyed in 2002 agreed parents should be allowed to smack children over five years old. Mr Tucci said half of the 301 adults surveyed also said it was OK to smack children over two years old. Only 16 per cent agreed parents should smack a child under two.

He said another national study of 500 people in 2003 found 17 per cent believed that a parent who caused injury to a child while administering discipline should not be charged with assault, while one in five respondents believed a parent who injured a child should not be convicted of assault".

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