Abstract: The issues of equality and diversity have emerged in the last two decades as the most controversial, debated and researched topic in the HRM literature. Different perspectives and concepts were translated into different management policy measures, ranging from equal opportunities, to affirmative action and diversity management. These views are briefly examined and their implications for HR management explored. The paper reports the preliminary findings of a study of HR views on diversity and equality in the workplace and the role played by the HR function in dealing with those issues in the particular context of a culture described in the literature as high on femininity.
In the nineties, the management of diversity emerged as an alternative model to equal opportunities. It emphasises the difference rather than the \u2018sameness\u2019 and values the individual\u2019s contribution to the organisation for its own merit regardless of the individual characteristics, backgrounds, orientations and religious beliefs. But many steps have been taken before diversity management came to taking into account the multiple identities in the workplace.
The initial approach became known as equal opportunities and was to a large extent a product of the civil rights movement of the sixties and the liberal political philosophy (Webb, 1997). This perspective relies on legislation, statutory codes and internal formalised procedures intended to ensure, along the lines of the political action that resulted from the civil rights movement, universal justice and equal opportunities for all. Legal measures were taken and discrimination based on gender and ethnic origin was ruled out by new labour legislation. Such legal instruments were progressively extended to the disabled, the older (over 40) and other social groups who tend to be discriminated against in work settings. The
purpose of equal opportunities is to adopt fair procedures and create a \u2018level playing field\u2019 at work where individual members of disadvantaged groups, primarily women, ethnic minorities and the disabled, are to be treated the same as members of the demographic \u2018dominant\u2019 groups.Overt discrimination was to a large extent prevented, thanks to the implementation and
enforcement of equal opportunities regulations. However, the evidence to date suggests that the legalistic approach to equality is far from effective. In fact, despite all the regulations, law enforcement and court settlements, it is generally agreed that equal opportunities did not meet the expectations and failed to make substantive changes in the labour market. Because the roots of discrimination go very deep and are embedded in the prevailing culture, those procedures are frequently ignored in routine practices and can easily be evaded by neglect or by design.
Reflecting social and political forces in society, the equal opportunities perspective was therefore challenged by a more radical view, rooted in the feminist theories. Such a view argued for a positive discrimination of the demographic groups that were traditionally underrepresented or less favoured in the distribution of jobs and resources (Webb, 1997; Shappiro, 1999), through the adoption of a transformative agenda, one that is interested in equalising outcomes, rather than opportunities (Richards, 2001). This perspective was translated into affirmative action programmes intended to increase the representation and facilitate the career opportunities of women and members of ethnic minorities through instruments such as quota hiring and preferential treatment.
The overall balance of the implementation of affirmative action programmes is still a matter of dispute. It is believed that these initiatives have contributed to the increasing number of women in the labour market, and an increasing proportion of them becoming established in professional and executive occupations. But it is also acknowledged that the majority of women have not benefited in a direct sense from these policies since the occupational segregation and differences in remuneration remain largely unchallenged (Anker, 1997; Marini & Fan, 1997). Above all, these programmes were criticised for unfairly discriminating members of the majority or demographic dominant groups and for stigmatising their intended beneficiaries by making inferences of substandard competence (Heilman, Block & Lucas, 1992). \u201cIt seeks to put right old wrongs by means which themselves are felt to be wrong...\u201d admits one of its strong supporters (Cockburn, 1989: 217). The politics and controversy surrounding the implementation and effectiveness of those programmes run high at times, particularly in the U.S. (Skrentny, 1996). They do not fit into the current liberal policies in Western societies and have been gradually abandoned.
In contrast with the former approaches, the management of diversity that emerged in the nineties tries to emphasise the difference rather than suppressing it. Whether that perspective is an evolution or extension of equal opportunities or a new management paradigm remains controversial (Kandola, 1995; Liff & Wajcman, 1996). A major difference between the two concepts appears to lie in the fact that equal opportunities starts externally and is enforced through legislation, whereas the diversity starts internally through the efforts to create an atmosphere of equality at work. Further, it is adopted voluntarily and is based on the advantage of cultural pluralism (Gordon, 1995).
Diversity management considers people as individuals and not as members of certain social groups (Liff, 1999). It was initially presented as a reaction against the view of organisations as made of unified groups within which each and every individual facing the same problems in the workplace. Such a homogeneous approach led to a biased view of the workplace environment by missing some important aspects of organisational life. Liff & Wajcman (1996: 80) put it quite clearly: \u201cdiscussions about whether women are the same as, or different from, men construct unitary categories which suppress differences between men and between women and ignore similarities between men and women...\u201d
In the diversity perspective, the individual's contribution to the organisation is valued for his/her own merit regardless of sex, age, race, ethnicity, nationality, sexual orientation or religious faith. It takes better advantage of the growing cultural pluralism that results from the internationalisation of business organisations, the development of world markets, the growing workforce mobility, and the increasing awareness of individual differences (Lawler, 1996). As pointed out by Thomas (1990), competence counts more than ever, and today\u2019s non- hierarchical, flexible, collaborative management requires an increase in tolerance for individuality. The question is not, therefore, one of accepting that individuals are different but creating an atmosphere of inclusion and making a commitment to valuing diversity (Gilbert & Ivancevich, 2000). \u201cFar from pretending workplace differences do not exist, managers should be trying to actively manage and value diversity\u201d, argue Liff & Wajcman (1996: 80). The popularity of the diversity approach comes from the assumption and increasing empirical evidence that valuing the diversity may become a source of competitive advantage, increase the quality of organisational life and ultimately be good for business (Cox & Blake, 1991; Herriot & Pemberton, 1995; Thomas & Ely, 1996; Cassell, 2000).
Besides, developing policies on equal opportunities and promoting diversity programmes may also be positively perceived by the public opinion and, therefore, contribute to enhancing the company's reputation. By transmitting an image of a caring, respectful, good organisation to work for, the company is able to attract more and better employees and
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