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Jane Farrell from Equality Works on how diversity and inclusion moved from a peripheral to a core business issue.
We need to address all aspects of disadvantage and not different forms of bias against each other because we are all multi-dimensional, according to a leading equality campaigner.
Jane Farrell, co-founder of Equality Works, was responding to a speech by equalities minister Liz Truss last week where she suggested that a focus on a “narrow” agenda regarding gender, race and disability had led to a disregard for socio-economic disadvantage.
Farrell believes we have to address disadvantage wherever we find it. Speaking to workingmums.co.uk, she said Equality Works stays out of politics and focuses instead on practical solutions. In that regard she defended the role of unconscious bias training, saying that it is an important part of inclusive leadership training. She said: “We do serious work about inclusive leadership and unconscious bias training is part of it. I would never recommend that you only do unconscious bias training and imagine that everything is then sorted.”
Farrell has been working to address inequality and systemic disadvantage at work since 1992. She says: “Whatever it is called – whether diversity or equality or anti-racism – it is about keeping your eyes on how disadvantage and advantage operates, understanding how disadvantage shows itself in particular organisations and what organisations can do to take account of the realities of people’s lives.”
Equality Works takes a holistic approach and does a diagnostic of an organisation’s policies and processes in relation to race, class and gender and related issues, how people are managed, what the HR policies are, how the organisation engages with its customers and clients and the unintended consequences of any policies. Farrell gives homeworking as an example of potential unintended consequences if organisations have not thought through how it will affect employees with little home space, no internet connection, no technical support, etc. “We look at everything in the round and come up with practical recommendations,” says Farrell. That may include checking that line managers understand what flexible working means and how to support it and checking that employers working from home have what they need.
Equality Works, which has worked with employers ranging from London Underground and the BBC to adidas, has never been busier than in the last few months in the wake of Black Lives Matter, #MeToo and Covid. Farrell says that there has been “a step change in our understanding that equality and diversity and inclusion is not peripheral”. “There’s an understanding that you cannot make a great produce or service without thinking about who the customers are, that you cannot be great without understanding the diversity and inclusion agenda and what to do about it practically,” she adds, saying the business case is now a given for many organisations, although many are in different stages of addressing it. “Some are just grasping it, but others have realised over the last five years that it makes a material difference to their culture,” says Farrell. “We help companies creatively disrupt the biases that get in the way of good decision-making.”
It’s so different to what was happening in 1992 when Equality Works was set up by Farrell and her partner Dr Annie Hedge. Both are former teachers. Back then diversity and inclusion was seen as a compliance issue. “Now it is a strategic issue which is about good leadership, brand and reputation,” says Farrell. “There’s still a long way to go, but it is now a core issue.”
She recognises that there is still a lot of bad practice around and says organisations often ask for help when they have a crisis rather than earlier, but adds that Equality Works prefers to focus on the good. “We need a relentless focus on what is good,” she states. She adds that she is concerned about the suspension of gender pay gap reporting during the pandemic and says it is vital to track it continuously to understand what impact it has, and to extend it to the ethnicity pay gap.
Farrell says that, despite the suspension, she is hopeful that diversity and inclusion will continue to be at the forefront of good leaders’ minds and will not just be a tick box thing. She thinks the access to good data that we have now enables companies to spot patterns really quickly and do something about them, for instance, that women often start at a lower starting salary which means they will be forever disadvantaged or that they often miss out on acting up positions. “When I compare what is happening now with what was happening 30 years ago,” says Farrell, “I think there has been significant progress. The constant pressure on organisations works.”