Come on all: if you're happy and diverse, clap your hands

18th September 2009 at 01:00
Another view: Stephen Jones

Remember Investors in People (IIP)? Not so long ago it was the latest big thing. Employers of all kinds - including most schools and colleges - were falling over themselves to jump on the IIP bandwagon.

Today, most of us work in organisations that tick the boxes, receive the accolade and routinely attach the IIP logo to the face they show the world. But what benefits have the employees, the "people" in these institutions received from it? The simple answer would seem to be: bugger all!

In colleges, managerialism is still rampant, bullying rife and a new round of job cuts, for some at least, already a reality; lecturers are underpaid and overworked, and a significant proportion of them are permanently stressed out of their brains.

Against this background it's hard to get too enthusiastic about the next "latest big thing": Investors in Diversity. Check out the website of the organisation that sponsors the award - the National Centre for Diversity - and you'll come across their slogan: "Diversity means different. We are all different and therefore diversity includes us all."

You might want to read that again and think about what it really means. Actually, I'd advise you not to spend too much time on it, because however long you peer into an empty bucket, it's still going to be empty. As a comment on the human condition it's about as profound as: "Human beings have digestive systems. Digestive systems produce wind. Thus we are all farters."

So what exactly is diversity in this context? What is it that we should be investing in? As the slogan suggests, diversity is about difference. To "invest" we must recognise, understand, value and celebrate the differences that exist between people.

Not much to take exception to there, you might think. But diversity is not necessarily just one big cuddly consensus. Take culture, for instance. Is it all worthy of "celebration"? Part of the culture I inhabit sees young people rolling round the streets of our towns at chucking-out time, vomiting, urinating and fighting one another.

Other cultures, too, have elements I would rather see ended than celebrated. Parcelling up women in dehumanised packages with only their eyes on show, or the mutilation or killing of teenage girls in the name of family "honour" are but two.

Such difficult terrain tends not to be entered very often by the diversity trainers, who are now busy preparing us all for our diverse futures. A colleague recounted how at her college the training they received recently was very much of the happy-clappy, "we're all in it together" variety. There were games to show that - surprise, surprise - we are all different, and other games to demonstrate that you can't always judge a book by its cover. When the compulsory group work sessions came around, various scenarios were handed out involving racism and sexism. Then someone spotted that the homophobia scenario had been shelved.

It was only at this point that the debate proper got started. Up jumped one participant to say that her students frequently made homophobic comments in class, and that not all of her colleagues were prepared to confront it. Silence. Closely followed by pandemonium. The debate that followed was difficult and possibly divisive, but at least it was out in the open, heartfelt, and "real".

No doubt that colleges and all the others currently undergoing corporate enlightenment sessions will end up in the not too distant future with the Investors in Diversity logo proudly stamped on their stationery. But whether it will make a ha'ppenth of difference to those who work and study in them is another matter.

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