Diversity and Equality

Diversity and equality are two things that we hear about a lot today. Both are terms that most of us probably understand, but they are curiously hard terms to define. An organisation can be said to be diverse if it has a wide range of different viewpoints on a particular issue represented among its members, or it can be diverse if it has a wide range of people who are members. For example, an organisation could be politically diverse if some of its members were politically right-wing, some were politically left-wing, and some were politically middle-of-the-road. An organisation could be racially diverse if it contained people who came from a wide range of different races.

An organisation can be said to have equality on a particular issue if an individual’s beliefs or attributes on that issue do not affect the individual’s standing within the organisation. An organisation has political equality if an individual’s political views do not affect their standing within the organisation, and it has racial equality if an individual’s race does not affect their standing within the organisation.

It would, of course, be foolish for all organisations to be diverse and equal on all issues. A few years ago I had abdominal surgery. The hospital where I had surgery did not have educational diversity when it came to surgeons. All of their surgeons had been to medical school, for which I was profoundly grateful. However, in general, diversity and equality are things that should be strived for.

Diversity and equality are good things, but they are different things, and that means that sometimes they have competing needs. Consider a hypothetical company, Widget Co. Widget Co has a diversity policy that says all political viewpoints are tolerated within the company. They also have an equality policy that says all staff members are treated equally, regardless of sex.

One day, Widget Co’s head of HR has a problem. One member of staff, Bob, has flat-out refused to work with another member, Alice. Bob’s political views have changed, and he now thinks that due to high levels of unemployment, women shouldn’t be allowed to work when there are unemployed men who could do the job.1 If he works with Alice he feels his political views are not respected.

What should HR do?

The answer is pretty obvious. Bob is in the wrong. The competing rights of diversity and equality have clashed, and equality has won.

Why has equality won? Equality has won because the only reason for having diversity is because diversity is one of the things that leads to equality. People being treated equally is far more important than having a diverse range of views.

Think about my examples above. If an organisation has a great range of ethnicities but only people of one ethnicity can reach senior levels then the organisation has diversity but not equality, and I think we can see that it is racist. On the other hand, if an organisation has members of only one ethnicity, but would treat any new member the same regardless of ethnicity, then it lacks diversity but it has equality. It may want to ask why the members are from only one ethnicity, but an organisation that is fundamentally equal can easily accommodate diversity.

A few years ago, when I was still living in Belfast, I used to go to the weekday lunchtime services at St George’s. Sometimes there were a lot of people there, other times there was just a handful. There was equality: everybody was welcome, regardless of sex, gender, denomination, race, and a host of other criteria. On one memorable occasion there were only about six of us, and we were all white men. On that occasion, there was no diversity, but there was still equality. Diversity without equality is quite a different beast. The services would have been quite different if the congregation had been a mix of races and sexes but only white men were allowed to lead.

When, as a Christian, I think about equality my thoughts always come back to Galatians 3:26-28. I also think about Acts 10:34 and 35:

Then Peter began to speak: “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right. (NIV)

Equality is a fundamental Christian virtue. That is one of the reasons why it is so important to me as a Christian. Diversity is merely the servant of equality, and when they compete, it is always equality than must win.


1 This might seem like a contrived example, but a female relative once had a colleague who expressed such a view.

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