In an increasingly interconnected world, companies are benefiting from attracting and nurturing diverse and inclusive workforces. Some industries, suchas manufacturing, may find the challenge greater than others - but successfully meeting that challenge is one of the keys to ongoing success.
Today’s culture of mutual respect in the workplace - commonly discussed under the triple rubric Equality, Diversity and Inclusion - has in its backstory a series of anti-discrimination laws such as, in the case of the UK, the Sex Discrimination and the Race Relations Acts of 1975 and ’76 respectively.
The ensemble of these legislations was superseded by the Equality Act 2010: a comprehensive guarantor of egalitarian treatment in the workplace conceived around nine ‘protected characteristics’ (age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy, race, religion or belief, sex and sexual orientation).
Indeed the reach of the Equality Act extends beyond the workplace, ensuring non-prejudiced standing for all users of, for example, the healthcare or education systems or of public transport.
Employers, by the terms of the Equality Act 2010, are obliged to give all good job applicants fair consideration; to make sure that all employees doing equal work get equal pay; and to make reasonable adjustments and accommodations for employees who require them (because of pregnancy, say, or disability).
Such legalities are designed to underwrite and safeguard a working environment in which all employees, feeling fully valued, can flourish in cultures of both personal confidence and interpersonal respect.
There are many obvious benefits to such flourishing. For example, a team experienced in handling cultural and other diversities within itself is naturally well-placed to interact with a broad client base. And a workforce with a strong inclusion ethic is likely to have relatively high morale and to be cohesive and internally loyal.
But it also appears that companies with established diversity cultures possess other advantages. An influential study carried out in 2017 by management consultants BCG noted that companies with more diverse leadership teams reported higher revenues - both generally and, more particularly, in revenue associated with innovation.
Why should this be? The report suggests that ‘people with different backgrounds and experiences often see the same problem in different ways and come up with different solutions, increasing the odds that one of those solutions will be a hit’.
The model of multiple perspectives brought to bear upon a shared agenda can in fact be seen as productive in various ways.
The minimisation of any monolithic ‘party line’, for example, may in some cases be a necessary precondition for the emergence of marginal, though original, voices - the kind that, if nurtured, can help businesses break new ground. And a diverse setting, duly respected, has the potential to discourage complacency and stale thinking. As one HR expert with a special interest in intersectionality recently blogged, ‘respect requires us to be disruptive with our own beliefs and to challenge ourselves’.
For many companies at the moment, though, dynamic possibilities of this kind might seem idealistic or remote. According to a recent performance audit, 99% of FTSE100 companies have an inclusive mission statement, but 41% have ‘no substantial initiatives’ to make that mission a reality. Little appears to account for the discrepancy beyond the natural forces of uncertainty and inertia.
The argument for actively pursuing diversity and inclusion initiatives, however, may in some cases be very compelling. The UK manufacturing sector is one such case.
According to figures from the manufacturers’ organisation MAKE UK, this is not a diverse industry. Women account for just 29% of the manufacturing workforce as a whole, 15% of the sector’s middle management roles and 8% of its professional high skill roles. Black, Asian and minority ethnic employees, meanwhile, make up just 18% of the workforce in manufacturing.
This is a strikingly unreconstructed demographic, the legacy, it seems, of an earlier age. But the nature of manufacturing work has changed dramatically in recent times - as have the social types and stereotypes that may once have been associated with it.