Tuesday, April 15, 2008

News: No Simple Business Case for Equal Opportunities

A report published last week by the Department of Work and Pensions has poured cold water on one of the most popular arguments for promoting equality at work.

The Business Case for Equal Opportunities: An Econometric Investigation” was researched and prepared for the DWP by a team at the National Institute of Economic and Social Research, and is based on original data from the 2004 Workplace Employment Relations Survey.

The report concludes that whilst there are some statistically significant relationships between subjective business performance and Equal Opportunities Policies, these are unlikely to be cause and effect related.

In other words, it’s not possible to say that better business performance, where is occurs, is a definite result of applying Equal Opportunities Policies.

The researchers also say that the evidence in the data for either a large or widespread impact of such policies – good or bad – is not strong.

Again, in other words, there’s no evidence to suggest that Equal Opportunities policy has a bad effect on business, but there’s no obvious case that it has a positive effect either.

Public bodies in Britain now have a significant raft of responsibilities in terms of reviewing policies and overhauling services to be more Equality focussed. This is especially the case in the areas covered by the three public sector equality duties – gender, race and disability. 

Government has so far steered clear of imposing the same kind of statutory responsibilities on private sector employers and providers.

Private business representatives have always said such provisions would be too expensive or onerous. The Government has instead focussed on indirect encouragement – placing its’ faith in the power of public sector procurement to encourage private companies to voluntarily adopt Equal Opportunities approaches.

It’s possible that DWP hoped that funding this kind of research might help sweeten the pill. The value of cultivating workplace diversity has long been justified through this kind of business case approach. It’s been loosely inferred that Equal Opportunities would have the same effect.

The results of the study don’t say that Equal Opportunities cost profits, or that such policies have any other kind of negative effect. They just make the point that there’s no statistical case, in the data they studied, to claim a definite cause and effect benefit.

The researchers make the point that the relationships are extremely complicated. They cite four main factors:

Firstly, they say that policies and practices vary in the degree to which they are implemented and are able to affect equality of opportunity. In turn, they say, this would affect the extent to which they might affect business performance.

Secondly, they acknowledge that policies and practices incur costs, as well as benefits. This means that the net benefit to an organisation may be positive or negative, depending on the particular Equal Opportunities practice, the organisation’s characteristics, and its circumstances. It could be good for one company but have no benefit to another.

Next, they say that the route by which an Equal Opportunities policy or practice in an organisation might affect business performance may be direct or indirect – affecting a set of intermediate outcomes en route. In other words they are saying that tracing the line of cause and effect could be like connecting a butterfly’s wing beat in the Amazon with a cold shower in Bradford.

Lastly, they say that there is no reason to assume that different types of Equal Opportunities policies and practices have the same effects on business performance, or even that the same type of Equal Opportunities policy has the same effect in different business and organisational contexts. In other words you can’t say whether family friendly policies have the same degree of outcome as, say, recuiting more disabled people – or which of those two would have the biggest impact in two different companies.

These all seem intuitively reasonable observations.

The researchers also address the question of cause and effect. They say:

“It cannot be assumed that if establishments with Equal Opportunities policies and practices have higher productivity or profits, that the former causes the latter.”

They continue,

“It is feasible that causality goes in the opposite direction – in other words that higher productivity or profits enable establishments to introduce Equal Opportunities policies and practices”.

They add,

“It is also possible that some other factor results in both better business performance and the take-up of Equal Opportunities policies and practices.”

The researchers’ conclusions are not all gloomy though.

Firstly they say that there are some statistically significant relationships between subjective business performance and Equal Opportunities policies. Companies that are doing well have comprehensive Equal Opportunities policies. What they stress, however, is that these are unlikely to reflect simple cause and effect.

They say that the evidence in the data for either a large or widespread impact of Equal Opportunities monitoring and reviewing practices on business productivity or profits is not strong – but they stress that this cuts both ways. In other words there’s no evidence that there is a direct benefit, but there’s also no cause and effect evidence to show any harm either.

Perhaps significantly, the researchers comment that any positive effects on productivity or profits from monitoring and review are more likely to arise in larger establishments.

But they stress too that there is some limited evidence to suggest that there are positive effects of some family-friendly practices.

The report says that positive productivity benefits seem more likely to arise in smaller establishments, whereas profit increases are more likely to be seen in larger ones.

With an eye on the political implications, the report states categorically that there’s no evidence to support the notion that Equal Opportunities policies and practices place disproportionate burdens on business.

In other words, they say that Equal Opportunities policies and practices do not appear to cost the private sector profits. Similarly they say that there is no evidence that Equal Opportunities policies and practices result in a net cost to employers on average.

However, they add that it’s likely that some employers will derive net benefits from implementing Equal Opportunities policies and practices, while others will see a net cost.

The report will be a disappointment to anyone who hoped for direct and incontrovertible evidence that equal opportunities practice was some kind of magic bullet, which could be justified to private business on a simple profit case. Anyone who understands the complexity of business organisation will always have known that such arguments are hopelessly naive.

However, the report also dispenses with the simplistic claim that equal opportunities are simply a burden, with always a negative effect on the bottom line.

When looking at this report it’s important to remember that the call for Equal Opportunities in the workplace has seldom (if ever) originated from a business looking at its’ profits or performance and saying “we need more equality”. They may say it indirectly, as in “we need to reduce our staff turnover and recruitment costs” – or even, “we need customers to identify more with who we are”.

But the big push for both equality and diversity in the workplace comes from social and political forces. It would be short term and naive for any organisation to think these are irrelevant to its operations. Organisations operate within society. If society fails then so does business.

It’s better to be honest – and not to think that business leaders can be swung by unsubstantiated assertions designed to appeal to their pockets. The message in this report is that all sides need to ditch simple assertions and take a more sophisticated view of a complex topic.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Gender Dysphoria: A Mother’s Tale

What do you do when your child exhibits markedly gender-atypical play behaviour almost as soon as they can walk and tells you, by the time they are four years old, that there’s been a mistake?

Susie is a Yorkshire mum with three young children. Two are very much boys, but the other, though born the same, has insisted since pre-school that a mistake had been made.

Last night I met up with Susie, near to where she lives in Yorkshire, and recorded her tale.

In this in-depth interview she tells how she handled the challenge, sought help and has cared for her child at every stage in a remarkable journey through growing up. She also tells why she felt her child was not getting the right kind of treatment at Britain’s only child and adolescent clinic specialising in this area, and why she turned, instead, to specialists in the USA and The Netherlands. As a mother, she also has advice for schools on how they could help parents and children avoid the bullying her child has experienced.

For more information and support for parents and families in this position see Mermaids (UK) and Trans Youth Family Allies (US).

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Economic Migrants

Today, as promised, I welcomed Denise McDowell from Migrant Workers Northwest to my home so that we could record an interview. That interview has now been published and you can listen to it below. For more options go to the Podcast web page.

The inward migration of workers to Britain has always been a matter of contention — yet never more so than in recent years when the concepts of economic migrants, unlawful immigration and asyllum have become confused and blended together. As I had hoped, Denise was able to help explain the difference between economic migrants (the lawful and unlawful kind) and asylum seekers and debunk a few other common myths and fancies.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

New Address, Same Podcast

The "Just Plain Sense" Podcast now has a new domain address making it a proper part of the Plain Sense "family". If you've bookmarked the Podcast web page then you might like to update to http://podcast.plain-sense.co.uk/; however it doesn't matter if you don't, as the server will carry on recognising the old address as well. Indeed, as the change settles down you'll probably see both kinds of address in use.

Tomorrow I'll be recording an interview with someone who spends her whole working life helping migrant workers settle down -- then I'm off to an important meeting at Halifax Town Hall in the evening. So there will be plenty of new content coming up soon.

Monday, April 07, 2008

Playing Catch-up

Things have been busy recently over on the Podcast channel, with the result that I've not been keeping up over here in the Blog -- where my general intention was to provide the back story or scripts to the recorded content. In this single post I'm therefore hoping to play catch-up and talk briefly about the all the new items I've been adding over there...

The first addition was an item I had been batting around in various forms for some time.

Religious Belief vs The Secular World

It's long concerned me that people seem to get into an unnecessary mess in trying to understand how rights regarding religion or beliefs can co-exist with other people's rights.

There are lots of places where such apparent conflicts can occur.

Many religions have beliefs or traditions surrounding the role of women that clearly don't accord with our modern-day view of equality. Advances in medicine over the last forty years, in the areas of contraception, safe abortion, test tube fertilisation and surrogacy have simply added to the potential touchpoints for a conflict of ideologies.

Similarly, as secular society's view of lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans people has advanced in leaps and bounds in the last few years (especially the last decade), the development of non discrimination legislation has led to religious groups feeling as though they needed to fight a desperate rearguard action to preserve space around ideas that they hold dear as well.

I had already written about this topic before, when invited to suggest a form of words that could go into a series of equality guides to explain how balance can operate. I also wanted to put this into a shorter and more digestible form, which I hope I've now achieved in the Podcast that I published last week, under the title "When Rights Conflict". You can listen to that using the player below.

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EHRC Gets Visual

The same day I also spotted an interesting development over at the Equality and Human Rights Commission, where they've launched their own You Tube channel : http://www.youtube.com/EqualityHumanRights .

I'm not sure whether I can get away with claiming a little bit of responsibility for this idea -- but I'll try!

At a consultation meeting which I attended with the new commission's communications advisers last summer I raised the suggestion that they should use You Tube and other new media in this way to get across their messages.

The idea was greeted with "We hadn't thought of that", and it was speedily written down. I dare say the idea may have been advanced by others as well though. After all, virtually everyone these days has a presence there -- though I'm content to carry on in the far more adaptable world of audio for some time yet!

The You Tube home page features a lead item on Marcus Ramshaw -- a rather fun sounding Vicar who also happens to be a practicing Goth. (So, you see, religious folk can have fun too -- if they want). You can also see inside Trevor Phillips' office and learn the origins of the big blue sofa.

My favourite video in the initial batch, however, is this one featuring the artist Alison Lapper.

Calpernia Addams - Widdowed by Hate

Over the last weekend I also took a trip down to London to spend some time at the International Lesbian and Gay Film Festival there. I had booked to go and see an expert panel discussing the way that trans people are represented in film and on TV. However it was also an opportunity to meet and interview a US rising star whom I've been watching and following with interest for many years.

Calpernia is a transsexual woman -- a strikingly beautiful one. In recent years her media career has begun to blossom. In 2004, following encouragement from none less than Jane Fonda, she and her business partner staged a unique all-transgender production of Eve Ensler's Vagina Monologues. A documentary of this was shown at the festival, along with a another short film of hers. She also consulted in the film Transamerica and has just completed a reality dating show in which she is the star figure. At the same time she has produced a really catchy dance track "Stunning", with a tongue in cheek video to match.

In other words, Calpernia is on her way up and we'll doubtless hear far more of her in the future.
Addams' present day success covers a terrible tragedy though.

Ten years ago she met a young soldier, Private Barry Winchell, who promptly fell head over heels for her charms. The two became an item, but this was interpreted by some of Barry's comrades as a homosexual affair. Two of them dealt with this by crushing Barry's skull whilst he lay asleep in his bunk at army camp. If that was not bad enough, Calpernia was then excluded from the opportunity for normal grieving and re-cast by the media and activists alike as a gay man -- since that enabled them to be able to understand the events as a homophobic hate crime.
As an interviewer I dreaded the task of drawing this story from Calpernia for the purposes of an in-depth interview. It involved pressing on when normally you would just stop and hug.

Calpernia wants people to understand the events for what they were though and, though there are moments when her voice slows and begins to crack, she made it through and told the tale as it feels now -- a decade on.

Personally I hope I didn't press too hard. I've never interviewed someone in this position before and I was desperate to find the right balance. Perhaps you'll listen, judge and let me know though. You can hear it below.

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Monday, March 31, 2008

News: 31st March 2008

A lot of my time has been taken up over the last few days by the curiosity that’s been generated by the story of the “Pregnant Man” over in the US. For more details on that listen here:

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Meanwhile, closer to home, I’ve been trying to continue the experiment of Podcasting a reasonably regular digest of interesting and relevant E&D related news stories. Here is this week’s crop:

First – The Government has been urged to fully ratify an international treaty on disability.

In 2007, the UK became one of the first countries to sign the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

But, according to the BBC, the disability charity Scope is now saying that it’s worried ministers may opt out of parts of the treaty, including the right not to live in an institution.

The government has said it hopes to ratify the treaty by the end of 2008.

Countries that adopt the treaty will have to get rid of laws, customs and practices that discriminate against disabled people.

The convention sets out the rights of disabled people, covering civil and political rights, accessibility, participation and inclusion, education, health, employment and social protection.

Scope says this treaty could do a lot to improve the rights of Britain's 11 million disabled people - but only if the government ratifies all of it.

The charity's Executive Director, Andy Rickell, said he was concerned that the UK would opt out of several sections - including the right to attend a mainstream school, the right not to live in a residential home, and the right to be treated as someone with the capacity to make decisions on their own behalf.

Rickell is quoted as saying, "There cannot be a 'pick and mix' approach on this. It will weaken the value of the convention and also undermine the government's record on promoting disabled people's human rights."

So far 17 countries have ratified the treaty including Spain, Cuba, India and Bangladesh. But 20 states must do so before it becomes legally binding.

And Next.. Skills Minister David Lammy has announced more support for recruitment and training to overcome the under-representation of women in five key sectors.

The Women and Work “Sector Pathways” Initiative, which has helped set out new recruitment and career pathways for over 8,000 women since 2006, will receive a further £5million a year for the next three years.

The initiative is currently running projects with 9 Sector Skills Councils. The Minister says that the 5 most successful projects will continue and that his Department will encourage new innovative approaches next year.

According to a release, all Sector Skills Councils will be given an opportunity to propose projects that address the needs of women in their sector. The projects will aim to help 5,000 women each year.

The initiative works to improve career opportunities for women in sectors and occupations where there are specific skills shortages and skills gaps, and where women are under-represented. This applies to sectors as diverse as construction, agriculture, automotive retail, clothing and footwear manufacture and cleaning.

The aim of the programme is to enable Sector Skills Councils to implement a range of focussed projects involving the recruitment, training and progression of women in their sectors.

Skills Minister David Lammy said that gender should be no barrier to a successful career, adding that “It's essential we provide extra support where it can do most good to help women overcome any barriers to recruitment or progression at work.” He says that the employer-led Sector Skills Councils understand their different sectors and so are best-placed to work with other similar employers to unlock all the talents in their workforce.

Sir Michael Latham, chairman of ConstructionSkills, said that the Women and Work scheme has given his organisation the opportunity to invest in a wide range of entry and progression routes for women in the industry.

He says that in the first phase of the programme, more than 2,000 women went through construction-related training, and have been given support and guidance to enable them to get started and to get on in the construction industry.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Half an Hour with Paul Martin

It was only originally planned to be a ten minute interview and, if I was interviewing for the average broadcast radio station, then there would have had to be an awful lot of him left on the cutting room floor. When the subject is the Chief Executive of one of the country's leading LGB charities though, and when he's as articulate as Paul Martin, then nothing less than the full half hour will do!

I've known Paul Martin for some time now, since we have often found ourselves sharing a stage to say our respective bits about LGBT rights. Last year I also recorded a fantastic contribution of his at a symposium we had helped to develop on LGBT public health policy, for the North West Regional Assembly.

See here for that speech.

Paul is like one of those Duracell bunnies in the TV ads. Once you set him going he just goes and goes. On the one hand this makes life easy as an interviewer; you just start him going and hang on for the ride!

Mind you, it's also difficult to get a word in too. Fortunately, however, we've worked so much together that I think Paul instinctively knew the kinds of questions I would have, and he obligingly took me there with very little input required.

In the the wide-ranging interview which Paul recorded for the Podcast he talks about the background to the Lesbian and Gay Foundation; the reasons why places like Manchester have become centres of LGB culture; the surprising ordinariness of many lesbian and gay people's lives; working for a better society - and working with each other. Oh .. and he also has a word of advice for the only Gay in the village.

For more about the LGF see http://www.lgf.org.uk/ and to listen to or download the Podcast just follow this link.

Postnatal Depression

Today I made the online acquaintance of a North West speaker and campaigner with a particularly personal experience of post natal depression, and the way in which it is treated.

Elaine Hanzak writes:

"For many people the journey of pregnancy and motherhood is a very delightful and rewarding experience. Yet for me this was not the case as I developed baby blues, postnatal depression and ultimately puerperal psychosis."

Elaine made a full recovery and her story is told in her book 'Eyes without Sparkle - a journey through postnatal illness' (Radcliffe 2005)'. However she explains how inadequate training and sporadic provision for helping women with this condition in different parts of the country transform the subject into a serious equality and rights issue for health service providers to address.

Her experiences also point to the manner in which people can become stigmatised by a mental illness label -- not just at the time they receive treatment, but forever after with that history recorded on their medical record. As medical records become increasingly accessible by a wider range of health staff, this kind of issue will affect more and more people.

Elaine's web site is at http://www.elainehanzak.co.uk/, with details of how you can book her for presentations. I'm hoping that sometime in the coming weeks I'll be able to feature her in the JPS Podcast. Meanwhile you'll find her own blog here.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Not the BBC, but...

As an experiment I've decided today to try adding a news episode to the mix of content in the Podcast side of 'Just Plain Sense' -- or JPS as it's now getting to be known.

Needless to say I don't have the resources of a news gathering team, nor do I have the resources to commit to a regular bulletin with in-house generated content. The news comes from a reworking of any press releases or announcements that particularly catch my eye and build on the purpose of the Podcast as an educational resource.

For all these reasons I'm therefore not committing to JPS News becoming a regular staple. Nevertheless, there are events on the Equality and Diversity landscape which don't fit an editorial approach all that well, and for which a straightforward news treatment may be better, so I'll see how it goes.

I won't be providing transcripts of the news bulletins in the Blog, but if you click on the title or here then you can go and listen, and leave your comments too.

- Christine

Sunday, March 23, 2008

How do we know what we don't know we don't know?

This week I was reviewing the advice that's going to be offered to organisations applying for project funding in a major investment programme. Naturally enough, the authors went into considerable depth to explain how Equality Impact Assessment would be considered as evidence that applicants were taking appropriate steps to ensure everyone benefitted from their proposals. We call this 'embedding' -- in other words, ensuring that new schemes consider the impacts on everyone from the outset -- even before the detailed design stage.

But it occurred to me that there is a danger in getting complacent about what any tool or process can do in these circumstances. In the computer business we used to call it GIGO -- garbage in, garbage out. An analytical tool is only as good as the information you feed into it.

If you'd like to listen to the Podcast then there's a handy player at the end of this item, as usual.

There are now three categories of Equality Duty on the statute book:

  • There’s the Race Equality Duty, which has been with us since 2002.
  • There’s the Disability Equality Duty, which took effect at the end of 2006
  • And lastly (for the moment) there’s the Gender Equality Duty, which has been active since April 2007.
But things aren’t likely to stop there. It’s expected that the next Equality Bill will add further duties in relation to sexual orientation, age, and religion or belief

In the meantime it’s already regarded as good practice by many organisations to cover these areas in the same way as the statutory categories – within what’s usually called a ‘Single Equality Scheme’.

Legally, the statutory duties strictly apply only to public bodies. However, many private and voluntary sector organisations can also find the duties apply by proxy, as a result of institutions reviewing their purchasing and procurement arrangements.

In other words, if you’re a private sector company or a charity (say) – and if you want to contract to provide services on behalf of (let’s say) a local authority or a hospital – then it’s very likely that they’ll want to see evidence of the way in which you, too, promote equality. The same applies if you’re seeking project grants from (say) a Development Agency.

Some public bodies have been slow starters in this area.

In 2007 the old Commission for Racial Equality highlighted that none of the 43 NHS Trusts and Fire Services which it surveyed in Wales had properly fulfilled their responsibilities after five years. And there’s nothing to suggest that the situation elsewhere was much different, or that other kinds of organisations were faring any better on this or the other duties.

The new Equality and Human Rights Commission has signalled that it intends to use its’ teeth on this topic though – and the duties aren’t going to go away. Bit by bit, therefore, the culture of proactively ensuring and promoting equality will gradually pervade services everywhere, and people need to know how to apply the methodology effectively.

The steps involved are straightforward enough – at least on paper. They involve establishing appropriate (board level) accountability for the whole process; drawing up and publishing a scheme (or schemes) for what is going to be done; and then publishing an action plan (or plans).

Among the methods for doing all this in a systematic and auditable way is a process called Equality Impact Assessment. Such assessments, and many of the other stages too, require effective consultation.

The concept of Equality Impact Assessment is theoretically simple enough. It begins by an organisation asking itself whether or not an existing or proposed policy or process might impact different people disproportionately in some way or another.

To give some examples:

  • A plan to move a health clinic to a new location might have implications for people who rely on public transport to get there.
  • A plan to change the hours for the same clinic might affect a different group of people who need to collect children from school or nurseries – or it may deter others if they feel unsafe on the nearby streets.
  • A move to weekend opening might be positive for some groups but it might have a disproportionately negative effect on others with families or particular religious needs.
Sometimes these implications may be obvious from our own experience, and it might be equally obvious how such a factor goes on to affect people of a particular gender or racial background, or with certain kinds of impairment.

Indeed it’s good practice to do a preliminary in-house sense check like this on every existing or proposed policy or service, as a way of deciding whether a more in-depth consideration is required. Most organisations simply wouldn’t have the resources to do a full analysis on everything.

But we all have limitations in our world view and experience. If you’re an affluent, educated, middle-manager who’s used to getting places by car, and has a partner to share in looking after children or elderly relatives then your understanding of the world and its practical limitations is likely to be rather different to a single parent, living on benefits, relying on public transport. You may simply not be able to see how an ostensibly reasonable provision might prevent such a person from using the service, or being able to apply for or sustain a job in your organisation.

Clearly impact assessment is only as effective as the limitations on your world view. This is why consultation is an important part of any assessment process – and at every stage.

But how do you know whether you’ve consulted widely enough? And how do you know whether the stakeholders you’ve spoken to have the breadth of knowledge and experience themselves to be reliable sources? This may be a particularly acute problem where the group concerned is unfamiliar or hard to locate.

Some communities should be relatively easy of course. If people form what we traditionally think of as a community – in other words they all live in one place – then there may be community groups you can approach. You could seek out spokespeople, or maybe you could use public meetings to ensure a variety of viewpoints are considered that way instead. Remember that people you encounter may themselves have a distorted or incomplete view of others in a different age group or social class.

Reaching people in a geographic community should not to be too difficult – you can put posters in shops and libraries, leaflets through doors or go to local social centres. (Though be careful to remember people who may be housebound, or have reading or language difficulties).

But some communities aren’t like that. Gay and lesbian people don’t all live in the same part of town, for instance. And beware of stereotypical assumptions about whether they all go to socialise in the same kind of pubs or clubs – or whether the needs and experiences of gay men equate with those of lesbian women, or bisexual people of either sex.

In these circumstances you may not be able to make direct approaches at all. Instead you might need to find a suitable organisation, such as a charity or voluntary group, to refer to for professional advice.

The same cautionary note applies here, of course – make sure you take steps to verify the expertise of organisations you speak to. How long have their experts worked with that community; how can they back up claims that they understand a broad cross-section of needs and experiences? Are they accountable to their community? You may need to go to several sources to be sure you have a balanced perspective.

And allow for the fact that, in spite of all these precautions, you and the stakeholders you consult may still get it wrong. You may miss an impact that nobody thought of. That’s why equality work can never be done-and-dusted. It’s always an iterative work in progress. The schemes and action plans you produce must be seen as working, living, documents which you revise continually on the basis of new experience.

If you’ve consulted well then it’s not a crisis to miss something out. The evidence that you’ve seriously tried to identify impacts is what matters; not the fact that you might have missed one despite your best endeavours.

But not consulting, or consulting poorly is far less forgivable. For that implies you simply don’t care that you don’t know what you don’t know.

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Monday, March 17, 2008

Political Correctness Gone Mad?

Preparing the Podcast version of this item was a lot of fun, because I decided for a change to go out and do some 'vox pop' -- sticking a microphone under the noses of random strangers on the street to ask for their opinions. I've not done this since I was a student in the 1970's and I was surprised at how nervous I felt when the time came for actually doing it this time around. Luckily Mancunians are mostly very nice and obliging -- even when a mad woman accosts them with a microphone. So, on balance I enjoyed myself, and the voices of these strangers brought an interesting perspective on my subject, before I sat down to write the script.

If you'd like to listen to the Podcast then there's a handy player at the end of this item. All you need is some speakers -- oh and some ears.

But how's about that question?...

Political Correctness. Now there’s a phrase. And it’s never said in a positive way – which I find odd, don’t you?

After all, it seems to me that if you’re going to do anything ‘Political’ – that is, about people and society, then the only acceptable option is to do it correctly.

Have you noticed, for instance, that the very newspapers which are the first to shout and howl about Political Correctness are also the first to have a fit about politics and politicians who aren’t correct? Seems to me they don’t know what they DO want – except, perhaps, to sell newspapers.

The usual target for finger waving about “Political Correctness gone mad” is anything associated with Human Rights. That’s also odd when you think about it. Because human rights are something which belong to all of us, all of the time – not just some of us, some of the time.

They’re not ‘given’ to anyone – they can only be claimed or denied. Trouble is, there’s a risk that most of us smugly take them for granted too. You may only realise how fundamental and precious they are when they’re abused or taken away.

What’s happened in recent years is that the press – and it is largely the print media I’m afraid – have attempted to steal a precious concept and subvert it into a dirty word. All they present us with are examples which challenge us to think that Human Rights are a bad thing – because applying them can sometimes lead us to look in the mirror uncomfortably at the consequences of our attitudes.

Before going any further, however, I wanted to know whether the press had succeeded. I decided to take my microphone out on the streets of South Manchester and ask people, first, whether they thought that Human Rights were relevant to them, or to their family and friends.

There were a couple of people who didn’t think so .. and I'm afraid you'll have to listen to the Podcast for what they had to say ... But … By and large, the people who thought Human Rights were relevant to them were the ones who could name one or more of them and know what they are.

So let’s look at that. Where do they come from for starters?

The Human Rights we talk about in Britain – the ones defined internationally in 1948 – came about as a response to the events of the second world war, including the Holocaust.

These events were a stark reminder of what can happen when any society treats, or allows others to treat, some people as less human than others.

The rights at the top of the list reflect that history – though they could just as well be applied to the history of Human Slavery, or what could still happen today under our noses – such as a recent horrific case of abuse that led to the death of a man with a learning disability.

There’s the right to life. The right not to be tortured or treated in an inhuman or degrading way. The right to be free from slavery or forced labour.

If you felt yourself nodding when those rights are mentioned then that illustrates how we can all identify why these things strike us as entirely sensible when applied to ourselves. What marks a civilisation is our preparedness to insist on the same standards for everyone else. And when I say everyone, that has to include people whose background and experiences may seem alien – and maybe frightening as a result.

Let’s list a few more. There’s the right to liberty. The right to a fair trial. The right to no punishment without law. Now don’t tell me those don’t resonate with us all. Which of us would wish to be detained without trial? And should we solve our social problems by mob rule? But that doesn’t deny that applying these principles fairly – to everyone – can’t be awkward for people who favour knee jerk reactions. But you can’t sacrifice the principal, no matter how tempting that might be in the heat of a particular situation. That’s why Human Rights are challenging. They hold us to account when we’re tempted to slide.

I could go on... There’s the right to Marry. The right to respect for family life, home and correspondence. The right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. Sometimes rights like these can appear to conflict with one-another too. The last one – about religious conscience – very often comes up against others. But that’s why some of these rights aren’t simply absolutes.
Some rights are of course almost totally un-negotiable except in warfare. The right to life, for instance.

Some, like the freedom of thought, conscience and religion, are what is called ‘Qualified’ rights. That means they have to be balanced against the competing rights of others. And the law has a way of doing that balancing act. It’s called ‘proportionality’.

It’s also worth remembering that rights always come with responsibilities too. The right to freedom of expression is a powerful idea, for instance – but it’s tempered by the fact that we are all expected to use it responsibly.

Human Rights principles therefore give us a very useful up-to-date manual for organising a society where there are bound to be conflicts of interest from time to time, or where we may not realise that our best endeavours to treat people fairly are falling short.

The Department of Health, in conjunction with the British Institute of Human Rights, is nowadays teaching health service staff how to think about what they do, and the services they provide, in Human Rights terms. And it’s surprising how far that can extend. What rights are engaged, for instance, if there are insufficient staff in a hospital to change wet sheets? What rights are involved with treating gay and lesbian patients and their partners with respect? What rights are involved if a doctor or dentist faces removal of their right to work?

The NHS has taken a lead by using the principles of Human Rights to evaluate and improve itself in this way. Maybe that will help to make the concept feel more relevant for day-to-day life – at least for the 1.3 million who work in that field. But which other parts of our society could give themselves health checks using the same principles? And can we apply them to the way we live our own lives and treat our neighbours? I think we can.

All of this means that Human Rights are undoubtedly Political. Yet I contend that they’re also the correct basis evaluating our institutions, services and personal behaviour.

So, ‘Politically correct’? Well then I’d have to agree. But is that going mad or not? I leave that for you to decide.

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Sunday, March 16, 2008

The 'Grammar' of Diversity

[You can listen to this item with the built-in player below]

A few years ago (in 2004) you may recall how an experienced and much-admired chair of one of Britain’s major nursing institutions found herself obliged to resign after using the expression “Ten Little Niggers” in a light-hearted way to summon her committee members back to the table after a coffee break. Two of them were black.

Pat Bottrill resigned shortly afterwards from the Royal College of Nursing in a hastily convened emergency meeting. Her acknowledgment that the reference to the title of a well-known Agatha Christie novel was “inappropriate and offensive” reminds everyone afresh of the link between language and manners in a diverse society.

Doubtless, many will have felt at least a twinge of sympathy for the lady concerned in these particular circumstances, and will have gone on to reassure themselves that they would never make an error of that kind.

After all, if the protocols for what’s acceptable and what’s not weren’t so universally acknowledged these days, the outcome in this case would not have been so swift and unequivocal.

Choice of “label” language is an important display of respect. And if in doubt, the accepted wisdom is to ask the person affected by your choice of vocabulary what they would prefer.

As in matters of harassment, the arbiter of whether your behaviour is acceptable or not is the person on the receiving end. What you meant is not what counts, it’s what the recipient felt.

But do people know how to get it right when confronted with a situation where they’ve not already acquired the language? And is there a formula to help ensure you’re not caught out in such circumstances?

We all talk about “disabled people”, “black people”, “people with learning difficulties”, “gay and lesbian people”, and so forth; most people wouldn’t dream of calling someone “a black” or referring to a community of people as “the disabled”.

But is that the best way to learn Diversity awareness? By rote? Like multiplication tables or lines from a foreign language phrasebook? Would it not be better to have a set of principles?

Understanding the grammar of any language is very different to merely learning a few phrases. If you understand the grammar then all you need in order to cope with a new situation is the vocabulary. In contrast, merely understanding the phrases to use in common situations tells you nothing about how to deal with the unfamiliar when it comes along.

One example of what I mean by the grammar of diversity is the preference which groups of people generally have to be referred to by adjectives rather than as nouns.

Turning the adjective "Black" or "Disabled" or even "Female" into a noun allows people to conveniently forget that an individual’s colour, physical limitations or sex are just some of many attributes which might qualify the more universal idea of them being a person.

Combining adjectives also allows us to recognise that there are elderly disabled black lesbian muslim women too, without any one attribute blotting out all the others.

Using adjectives for their proper purpose, and not turning them into nouns is just one example of what I call the grammar of diversity, but it’s not hard to think of other examples – not all of which need be language based. Consulting with people themselves is a grammatical principle, because it doesn’t just apply to whichever group of people makes the loudest complaints about it.

To consult about the needs of pregnant women you’d probably seek out some women who are pregnant, for instance. But who has fallen into the trap of asking an able-bodied “expert” about the needs of disabled people rather than disabled people themselves?

Issues like this are becoming more and more important these days, with an increased focus on disciplines such as carrying out Equality Impact Assessments and devising equality schemes.

These activities require effective consultation. And if you’re to consult effectively then you need to locate the right people to talk to, and then connect with them on an equal and respectful basis.
Compiling a Single Equality Scheme becomes the equivalent of taking a European tour – having dialogue in French today, German tomorrow and Italian the day after.

So start brushing up on that grammar – because sooner or later you’ll encounter circumstances you weren’t prepared for. And the phrasebook won’t be any help.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Putting the Cart Before the Horse

[Note that you can listen to this item by using the embedded player below]

Lots of people talk nowadays about Equality and Diversity. They use the words or the expression without a thought. Yet – and I’m often guilty of this myself – there can be a risk of assuming that people know what the terms mean individually, and why they therefore support one-another when paired.

First of all – coming originally from the IT consulting industry – I’ll confess that I’m no stranger to people using words or abbreviations that leave others mystified. There’s an apocryphal tale from the days of huge mainframe computers in the 1970’s where a well-known bank’s central computer stopped working calamitously in the middle of the day’s trading.

You can picture the scene. Tellers sitting idle at their counters. Managers tearing their hair out... The on site engineer was summoned. He disappeared into the innards of the huge leviathan machine with his tools and emerged seconds later to inform the harassed data processing manager that he’d have to ring up for spares, as the computer needed a new AMD. The manager was understandably worried. Though he was a technologist himself the term was unfamiliar and sounded distinctly serious – and probably expensive.

Shortly afterwards the new AMD was fitted; the computer restarted and normal commerce was restored – so then the manager ventured to enquire more, so he could make a report to his superiors. What was an AMD, and why did its failure have such catastrophic results. The engineer raised his eyebrows and explained, as though addressing a child, that the letters AMD stood for “Air Movement Device”. The manager thought for a moment and then sought clarification... “Do you mean a fan?” The engineer nodded. The computer had overheated.

The point of that anecdote is to underline what a barrier jargon terms can be to understanding if you’re not very careful – and if you make assumptions about people sharing your vocabulary. But that brings me now to the second point. What happens when we pair words?

Take Ant and Dec for instance. Ant’s the one of the left I’m assured (I had to look it up on the Internet). But see how pairing two names transforms a pair of individual people into a single entity with no better distinguishing feature than where they stand? (At least with Morecambe and Wise you knew that Ernie Wise was the one with the short, fat, hairy legs).

Think of more serious examples. “Health and Safety”; “Black and Minority Ethnic”; “Lesbian and Gay”; maybe even “Peace and Goodwill”. Pairing words helps them roll off the tongue. The problem is that the pairing can mean that people think about the pair as a single idea, rather than remembering the reason someone chose to pair them in the first place. Often the pairing confuses the emphasis too. In health and safety it is the safety part we need to concentrate upon much of the time – the health bit follows naturally from that. Similarly ethnicity embraces far more than skin colour, yet many people often fall into the assumption that race issues start and finish with people who are a particular range of shades.

So what does that say for “Equality and Diversity”. Is that just one concept, or two related ones? And which of the two is the chicken, which the egg?

Let’s take them individually, starting with the first.

Equality, simplistically, is about seeking to ensure that all people are treated with a similar degree of respect and fairness in our world, regardless of who they are. For managers in private and public organisations it’s broadly the realm of “what you must do”. I say it that way because, in Britain, we now have a 30 plus year history of steadily adding one legal protection after another, to progressively protect more and more people from discrimination – whether in their employment or enjoying the use of goods and services.

Equality practice therefore starts with the legislators’ acknowledgment that people are different – and that it’s their difference from others that marks them out for unfair treatment. The mindset of non-discrimination legislation, till recently, has been about countering negative behaviour by giving people the tools to prosecute it. Our thinking about that has changed, of course, with the introduction of statutory duties to promote equality – but that’s a different talk for another time.

But let’s now look at Diversity....

Diversity is a posh word for difference. And you know why intellectuals use posh words. But if we’re to make all this stuff accessible and instinctive for everyone let’s stick with the simpler word for a moment...

Nature does difference awfully well – and it’s worth reflecting on why. Take Fish. Evolution hasn’t presented us with just one kind of fish in the sea, has it? There are millions of kinds. Why? Well, although (on the face of it) all fish share one very big similarity (they live in water), each species is specialised in a different way to bestow different advantages in different circumstances.

The same goes for insects. Or plants. And every living thing. If you’re religious then you could say that God really seems to love diversity.

All of that makes it odd that we humans seem to have so much difficulty applying that love to ourselves. After all, whether it’s evolution or a guiding hand that you believe in, it’s obvious that there just isn’t one kind of human. You’d think, with all this wonderful variation, that everyone would say “Wow, isn’t it wonderful that we’re all different”. Unfortunately the first instinct for many seems to be to think there’s a problem.

Let’s go back to the fishes: Is a Parrot Fish “better” than a Barracuda?

Or insects: Does an Aphid have less of a role to play than a ladybird? Is the only reason we kill spiders the fact that we’re frightened of them. I’m not too keen myself, yet I’ve allowed my house to be full of them, because they have a role to play. I don’t know what they’re eating under my bed or between the rafters, but I’ve got a shrewd idea that my self control may bring me some benefits that I can’t necessarily anticipate up-front.

That brings us back to the rationalisation of why protecting, nurturing and even encouraging difference is a valid thing in both business and society.

It’s not because the law says we have to. Like the chicken and the egg we have to remember that there were values that drove those laws to be enacted. Maybe the original motives had more to do with preventing the consequences of exclusion and division. Yet the umbrella of protection which equality law has created has also meant that there is the opportunity to realise something else.

To be simplistic again, I’ve said that equality is something people HAVE to address for legislative reasons. However, if you understand the promise of diversity then it's something that sane minded people should WANT to do, for the very best self interested reasons.

It may require a leap of faith before you encounter the examples which hammer the point home, but having a diverse workforce, or a diverse society – even a diverse collection of friends – pays dividends. It happens for the same reason that evolution made all those different kinds of fish, insects and mammals. And all those different kinds of people.

So, diversity is about recognising and celebrating the value of difference.

Smart organisations – smart societies – smart people – recognise that and create the environment where diversity can flourish and go on to deliver.

Equality is necessary to enable diversity to come through and thrive. If you can’t retain different people in your organisation they’re not going to be around to make – er – a difference.

The reason the two go together is therefore obvious. They are co-related.

Without diversity there would perhaps be no need for equality. That’s debateable. But it’s clear that equality is essential in order to foster and benefit from diversity.

It may be, of course, that rather like other paired expressions, we’ve got the order back to front. Just as we ought to think about Safety for Health, we perhaps ought to talk about Diversity and Equality. But I’ll leave you to debate that.

Stand by your beds!

OK now .. well that must count as one of the longest entrances in history! Four years ?

I first staked a claim on my own name in the 'blogosphere' back in 2004. Well, it seemed wise at the time -- and I'm glad I did, because I seem to have an awful number of talented and web-savvy sisters with the same name to compete with online!

Back in 2004 I was still very busy on other things. My colleagues and I had just nursed a piece of legislation through Parliament for one thing. So, after my "Hello World" entrance back then this blog went into mothballs.

Now, in 2008, I'm still just as busy. I've just launched a new Podcast channel dedicated to discussing all aspects of Equality and Diversity -- beginning with such fundamental questions as 'What does it mean'.

The Podcast is both a shop window on my work in the field, and a celebration of my enthusiasm for the medium. However, I've already realised that some of the episodes have a back story that may be worth telling. Some visitors have also asked if they could read rather than listen to some of the things I have to say. All in all, I realised that I could therefore do with a complementary text channel as well. So that seemed like a good cue to bring the blog back from the back of my electronic wardrobe, dust it off, and start penning!

Now, whilst I work out how to link Blog and Podcast together more seamlessly, why don't you go and have a listen to 'Just Plain Sense' - http://christineburns.podbean.com/