Diversity in the workplace

World of Work round table series


The topic


Diversity has been the hot topic in businesses for several years now, covering ethnicity, sexuality, gender and class. All businesses seem to agree that diversity is good and research shows diverse businesses perform better than less diverse peers.

But the death of George Floyd and the subsequent Black Lives Matter demonstrations have made the topic even more urgent, putting the spotlight firmly on how companies are approaching diversity and increasing the pressure on them to become more inclusive organisations.

At this roundtable, we discussed with the panel how the business community is fairing – what is it getting right, and wrong? How can firms in sectors that traditionally lack diversity break the mould? What are the benefits of being more diverse and, vitally, what must businesses do to create more of it – of all kinds – in their ranks?

We wanted to look at the full spectrum of diversity and help businesses to understand why it matters and what they can do. 

Our research

  • To help inform the discussion, we asked YouGov to conduct two surveys of:
  • 1,000 senior decision-makers UK-based businesses
  • 1,000 employees working at UK-based businesses

To find out:

  • Do businesses believe it’s their responsibility to ensure their workforce is as diverse as possible?
  • Do employees feel it is important to work for a diverse organisation and do they believe their employer is doing everything they should to achieve this?

The findings

  • Two thirds (67%) of employees agree that businesses have a responsibility to society to be as diverse as possible…
  •  … but less than a fifth (18%) feel their employer should do more to create a diverse culture.
  • Just under two thirds (64%) of senior business decision-makers said it was important for their organisation to have a diverse workforce…
  • … while a similar majority (69%) agree they have a responsibility to society to ensure their business is as diverse as possible.

The panel

Farhat Zaheer
Bex Burn-Callander
Anne McBride
Pippa Marler
Louise Stewart
Rachel Credidio
Farhat Zaheer

Farhat Zaheer

Director of global strategy, TBWA

Farhat is a diversity campaigner as well as strategy director of global ad agency TBWA in London. Farhat noticed a lack of diversity early in life and wrote her dissertation on the portrayal of People of Colour in advertising despite “stern” advice that this would scupper her intended career). Thirty years later she has helped nurture the growth of a variety of brands including Danone, Durex, Ford, Birdseye and Nissan. Diverse by nature, Farhat has always been a staunch ally where invited.

Bex Burn-Callander

Bex Burn-Callander

Technology, economics and business journalist, writing for the Daily Telegraph and Management Today (chair)

Former enterprise editor of The Daily Telegraph and Sunday Telegraph, Bex was previously associate editor at Real Business Magazine and web editor at Management Today.

Her work has been published in: The Guardian, The Times, The Week and Real Deals, and she also regularly provides commentary for TV and radio, appearing on BBC Radio 4, Share Radio, Sky News and Channel 4.

Anne McBride

Anne McBride

Professor of employment relations, Alliance Manchester Business School

Anne’s areas of academic specialism include employment relations, healthcare management, gender and diversity. Recently she has worked on collaborative projects with the University of Aberdeen and Bangor University studying the impact on health professionals of organisational and skills mix change.

In 2017, Anne chaired the drafting panel for the BSI’s diversity and inclusion code of practice, a standard now used by businesses and public sector organisations across the UK.

Pippa Marler

Pippa Marler

Diversity and Inclusion Lead, Weightmans

Having navigated a career including costs lawyer, technical auditor and in-house legal recruiter, Pippa’s move into the role of Diversity and Inclusion Lead at Weightmans was born out her passion for equality and diversity across all areas of the business and across all strands including BAME, LGBTQ+, Gender and Disability and Mental Wellbeing.

Pippa coordinates the firm’s Diversity and Inclusion Steering Group and oversees implementation of the diversity and inclusion strategies with the support of 43 Diversity and Inclusion Champions placed across the business.

Louise Stewart

Louise Stewart

Strategic counsel, Cicero/AMO

Formerly a political correspondent for the BBC, Louise was director of communications at the Federation of Small Businesses for four years before moving to Cicero. In her time before joining the trade body, Louise rose to the position of political editor of BBC South East and, more recently, has been named in PR Week’s Power Book of the most influential people in communications for the past three years.

Rachel Credidio

Rachel Credidio

Group people and transformation director, Aster Group

Rachel has more than 20 years’ experience in the social housing sector, having spent the past 15 at Aster.

Responsible for HR and talent management, communications, IT, business insight, innovation and project management at Aster, she is leading a transformation in the way the organisation engages with its people to drive innovation, creativity, collaboration and productivity.

Panel discussion - key highlights

  • Diverse businesses are fundamentally better businesses, making better decisions and creating more opportunities
  • But social responsibility must be the real justification for building more diverse and inclusive workplaces
  • Offering flexible working can help improve diversity, giving firms a bigger pool of people to recruit from and enabling them to access a more diverse selection of applicants.

Issues of diversity and equality have been on the business agenda for decades, but were thrown into the spotlight more than ever by the rise of the Black Lives Matter and Me Too movements during 2020.

It’s put employers under increasing pressure to become more inclusive, with regard to ethnicity, gender, sexuality, class, ability and more.

With this in mind, we recruited a panel of experts for our latest World of Work roundtable, a series of events created by Aster Group and designed to help businesses understand and respond to rapidly evolving workplace trends.

Read more in the sections below.

The experts were unanimous that diversity must be more than a box-ticking exercise for firms and that diverse organisations are fundamentally better businesses, making better decisions and providing more opportunities for innovation and growth.

But diversity campaigner and director at global advertising agency TBWA, Farhat Zaheer, warned against relying solely on the business case for diversity, arguing that social responsibility must be the real justification for more diverse and inclusive workplaces.

Rachel Credidio, group people and transformation director at Aster, said it was very positive to see businesses being held to account more and more by their employees and customers.

While the panel did report historical challenges when promoting a diversity agenda within businesses, which forced them to lean on the business case when securing buy in from senior management, they said times had now changed.

But the biggest advocates for diversity might not always be who you would expect.

Louise Stewart, senior counsel at communications and market research agency Cicero, said: “I’ve worked in businesses that are dominated by white males of a certain age group, and I was surprised when a senior woman privately questioned our work to highlight women’s achievements because ‘no one gave me a leg up in life’. Some of the men were much more supportive.”

Farhat added that it’s important to respect, support and listen to people who are making positive efforts to change.

She said: “There’s a vulnerability to those who are on the journey of educating themselves about diversity too.

“Those who stand up to talk about their journey to deal with their internal bias are a really important part of the jigsaw.”

Pippa Marler, diversity and inclusion lead at law firm Weightmans, said her firm’s diversity strategy had begun with efforts to improve inclusivity.

She said: “Data is one of the most important things you can use for any Diversity and Inclusion (D&I) project.

 “You might not realise it, but look at your data and, depending on your size, you’ll undoubtedly find out you do have people in your organisation who are living with hidden disabilities that affect their ability to do their job, for example, or people who don’t recognise the gender they were assigned at birth.

“There will be people who are not out as their true selves for fear of that limiting their progression.

“They are there even if you don’t know they are there.”

Armed with that data, Weightmans was then able to enhance its inclusivity, setting up an LGBTQ network, hosting activities for Black History Month and installing gender neutral bathrooms.

But the panel also warned that the road to diversity may not be smooth and stressed how important it is to get people comfortable having difficult conversations.

Rachel said: “Organisations say they want diversity but are then surprised when it leads to some challenging conversations.

“Actually, what we want is challenge and diversity of thought.

“So, what are the tools that can help with that? We’ve rolled out restorative practice across the whole organisation to ensure everyone has their voice heard.”

“And we’re developing our leadership capability to ensure inclusive leadership is our default style and supports our fair and inclusive culture - this includes everything from the way we recruit to how we encourage employee voice.”

Rachel also hailed the potential of remote working to improve diversity, which means firms can recruit from a larger pool of people, giving them access to a more diverse selection of applicants.

Flexible working practices also support colleagues with caring commitments, who might otherwise be excluded from the world of work.

Anne McBride, professor of employment relations at Alliance Manchester Business School, said that organisations must work to help ensure diversity in their partners, customers and supply chains too.

This could be done by adding diversity commitments to the contractual process, but firms could also offer to work together with partners to influence improvements in their organisations.

The panel agreed that efforts to tackle diversity in businesses must ultimately start in schools and it is incumbent on organisations to help open doors for those whose aspirations and opportunities may be limited.

Initiatives like going into schools to host workshops and offering internships can help inspire young people from all backgrounds and broaden their horizons, opening their eyes to career opportunities they may never have considered.

But it is important to do this before young people have already made decisions about their GCSEs and A-levels.

Farhat said the ultimate aim for firms is to create a culture of belonging.

She said: “That’s when you can come to the table and feel that your voice is validated even though you might be in the minority.

“That’s really important if a business is going to embrace and profit from the full joy and wealth of having a diverse group of people.”

It’s not just good business - diversity and inclusion is every firm’s social responsibility

A view from Rachel Credidio

Group people and transformation director at Aster Group

"At Aster, we’re working hard on achieving that inclusivity through our flexible culture as well as by developing our leadership capability to ensure inclusive leadership is our default style and supports our fair and inclusive culture - this includes everything from the way we recruit to how we encourage employee voice."

Read the full blog below.

Read blog

About Aster Group

Housing association Aster Group supplies a wide range of housing options in response to the housing crisis, working towards its vision of ensuring everyone has a home. The not-for-dividend business was established in 1990 and has £2 billion worth of assets.

Aster plans to invest £2 billion over seven years on 10,400 new homes and forecasts delivering 855 homes during the current financial year (2020/21). The group reinvests profits from open market sale and shared ownership to support the development of affordable rented homes.

It owns and maintains over 32,000 homes, provides services to around 93,000 customers and employs more than 1,400 people.

Learn more

Aster's roundtable series

Ambition, motivation, and belonging

Get an insight into the discussion at our first roundtable on ambition, motivation, and belonging and hear more from the panellists here.

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At this roundtable, we discussed with the panel how the business community is fairing – what is it getting right, and wrong?

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