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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