What is good diversity management?

“Diversity management is not only about the needs of minorities, but also about the other employees who might need adaptation when they’re going through rough patches in their lives,” says Professor Gro Mjeldheim Sandal.

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“Today, it might be Ahmed who needs support to improve his language comprehension while Sara needs physical adaptation. In a year’s time, it might be you who needs adaptation because you’re going through a life crisis,” explains Gro Mjeldheim Sandal. (Illustration: iStockphoto)

Diversity has long been something all enterprises and organisations have had to incorporate in order to be perceived as modern and current, and this includes research organisations, according to Gro Mjeldheim Sandal, professor at the University of Bergen (UiB).

“When diversity becomes a value that many organisations boast but do not necessarily live up to, it can easily be perceived as an empty concept,” she says.

In 2017, Sandal was interviewed by Kifinfo in the article What is diversity management?

“What’s the status of the field today?”

“I feel that many people see diversity and diversity management as a form of woke (see fact box). “An exercise in political correctness. And that's sad.”

Sandal refers to this as a kind of diversity fatigue in the sector.

Towards reverse discrimination?

“One of the new perspectives employed in diversity management research is what’s happening to the majority, in the sense that all the other employees that aren’t minorities feel that the strategies and plans don’t apply to them,” according to Sandal.

“Diversity strategies can easily become something the organisation follows up because they feel it’s their duty. There is a risk that the only people who are care about it are those who either belong to a minority group themselves, or those who have been assigned to the task.”

“Many people could feel that a goal of greater diversity is neither interesting nor relevant to them – and that’s a major problem that can be an obstacle to good and inclusive work environments."

Sandal finds it worrying that negative attitudes from the majority can backfire on the very groups that the diversity initiatives target.

“Research has gradually emerged indicating that diversity strategies that are not sufficiently embedded may result in a backlash among majority employees,” Sandal explains, referring to theories of resistance and having to give up benefits and resources.

“It could be the case that other employees feel that those from minority groups are favoured. For example, a female professor told me about a meeting with a younger male employee who asked her if she didn’t find it uncomfortable that her career had been based on a quota system – which was not the case at all.”

Gro Sandal finds it worrying that negative attitudes from the majority can backfire on the groups that are the focus of diversity initiatives. (Photo: private)

Another example Sandal gave is hiring processes, where there is a duty to invite qualified people with a minority background to an interview. She refers to the article published in the online newspaper Khrono about someone with a disability who was not invited to an interview, although he was qualified.

"Some people misunderstand this as them being pushed forward in the queue, even if they are less qualified," she says.

“It’s easy for someone from the majority to think that ‘I wasn’t called in, despite having at least as good papers as this person’”.

“A third example is how female associate professors used to be assigned mentors, but what about men? If the measure is not understood or sufficiently justified, it can therefore create a sense of reverse discrimination,” says Sandal.

Several universities have or have previously had mentoring programmes, some just for women and others for both men and women.

Shift of focus from the minority to the majority

While some may see this as “woke”, Sandal believes that a lot of good work is being done for both equality and diversity in research organisations. She refers to Horizon Europe’s requirements for Gender Equality Plans, which have strengthened efforts in recent years.

“This is promising, but requires long-term efforts, quantifiable ambitions and follow-up to prevent it from just becoming verbose formulations."

Sandal believes that the shift of focus to reverse discrimination is something that is reflected in current research on diversity management. 

“It’s about how to achieve a diversity management that’s not just about minorities."

Sandal cites an example of a misconception that women or minorities must have special measures because they are less competent.

"What we need to convey is that what we call diversity management encompasses everyone," she says.

The question is thus how it can be made relevant to everyone.

Diversity management for everyone

"Traditionally, diversity strategies and research on diversity in working life have been about groups that are often seen to have less opportunities to find work and pursue careers,” according to Sandal. "The groups may be more prone to negative differential treatment and be in a weaker position when it comes to pay,” she says.

It is crucial to safeguard these groups, but she believes the answer to how other employees can also become more engaged lies in an all-inclusive approach:

“Everyone should feel included,” she says, throwing out her arms in emphasis.

“But how can we do that in practice?”

“It’s about conveying that everyone may need adaptation at some point in the course of their working lives. For example, do you have sick parents? Or maybe you’ll become sick yourself?”

Diversity management in practice is about safeguarding all employees when they’re going through rough patches or their needs change, Sandal believes.

“Today, it might be Ahmed who needs support to improve his language comprehension while Sara needs physical adaptation. In a year’s time, it might be you who needs adaptation because you’re going through a life crisis.

“So it’s important to point out that diversity management is not something that only affects the others, but something that affects all of us,” she says. 

She stresses that this is nothing new, but something she also emphasised in the article: What is diversity management?

Ownership of diversity strategies

“What is new in research in this field, however, is the shift towards how we can involve the rest of the employees in the organisation,” says Sandal.

“This research underlines the importance of the management being concerned with taking care of all employees based on their needs, circumstances and life situations.”

“All employees must also feel that the expertise they bring to the market is valued by the enterprise,” she says.

Sandal highlights research suggesting that traditionally more privileged employees may perceive measures aimed at increasing diversity in the organisation to be threatening. 

“Research from the USA has indicated that employees from groups that have traditionally had a high status may find the workplace less attractive when there are more employees with a minority background." 

She believes it is about considering several lines of thought at the same time, so that managers also monitor the effects of diversity measures on other employees.

“I think we’re now at a stage where enterprises and managers need to think about how diversity strategies are embedded in the organisation so that all employees feel a sense of ownership to them.”

“Diversity of opinion is also important”

While strategies can provide energy and drive behind different types of initiatives, Sandal is interested in how diversity management can be about creating an inclusive culture.

“The fact that we’re different must go without saying."

“Which dimensions of diversity we’re concerned with have changed over time, from, for example, gender to ethnicity and LGBTQI+. Which groups diversity initiatives should focus on is not set in stone,” she says. 

Sandal believes that managers must take into account that strategies can quickly become outdated and that the dimensions that apply can rapidly shift.

Diversity of opinion may be particularly relevant in these times:

“There may be political contradictions, such as which political attitudes employees dare to express and what reactions these could be met with, such as ostracism or ridicule.”

“What is a wise way of exercising diversity management today?

“Diversity is both about the organisation’s level of tolerance and about reaping the benefits of the differences between employees."

“This rests on the possibility of being able to speak up, having an influence and being heard. Nothing is more motivating for people than being heard and noticed,” she says.

Sandal thinks it’s important to dare to embark on "good debates" for the development of the diversity field. She refers, among other things, to the debate on internationalisation that Cecilie Hellestveit sparked into life in 2021.

“Hellestveit sparked a heated debate that many people probably agreed with, but did not dare to front.”

The debate was started by Hellestveit questioning how many international employees we should have in the research sector, but also what requirements were made of Norwegian language training.

“This is something that affects all employees, and there must be great freedom to express our views. When things become too politically correct, we don’t bother to get involved,” Sandal believes.

Diversity management without dodging conflict

Sandal is concerned with how diversity management is often reduced to metrics, special activities or an inclusive leadership style.

“Diversity management is something that has to become second nature. In practice, managers make countless decisions every single day. It’s all these tiny choices that make up your leadership style,” she says.

However, Sandal believes that not all differences should be accepted. She highlights the importance of having something in common, such as language requirements, that managers can require employees to abide by.

“My impression is that some leaders shy away from difficult cases that involve minorities. I think this might be about fear of being labelled as prejudiced or discriminatory, or maybe that the matter will become a big issue.”

For this reason, Sandal believes it is important to have forums where managers can talk about these things.

Translated by Allegro Language Services.

More about diversity management

Gro Mjeldheim Sandal is a professor of psychology and head of the research group Society and Workplace Diversity. She is a trained clinical psychologist and holds a PhD in psychology.

Diversity management is about two things:
1) Managers must safeguard their employees wherever they are in life and as the person they are.
2) How organisation's can benefit the most from diversity both at their own institution and in society.