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Equality, Diversity & Inclusion – Issues and perspectives

Equality, Diversity & Inclusion – Issues and perspectives

29 April 21
 | 19 MINS

Exploring how the Equality, Diversity and Inclusion agenda is pursued and progressed throws up many challenges, some of which cut to the core of how we limit what is up for debate and advancement.

The Public Sector Duty Act (2014), the 2018 HEA Report on Gender Equality and the Irish Universities Charter laid the groundwork for a systematic attention to the development of Equality, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI) policies in Higher Education Institutions.

The National University of Ireland and other Irish universities have been engaged with EDI strategy at an increasing pace in the last decade. This was a direct response to growing evidence that universities’ implementation of measures in in accordance with formal legislative equality had achieved little in terms of equality in outcomes between the genders, the primary focus of the initial efforts.

This brief overview focuses on charting the evolution of EDI and critically discusses the extent to which EDI is a transformative strategy.

Evolution of the EDI concept

Equality as a foundational principle for the social contract has a long history. Long before the battle cry of equality and liberty in the French Revolution, ancient societies grappled with inequality between various sections of society.

Concerns of (in)equality focused on those recognised as “the valued members of the society”, conveniently ignoring the suffering of those labelled as “other” – whether it be slaves, serfs, low castes of various ethnicities and races.

However, the understanding of equality as a basic principle of a moral society gained momentum with the French Revolution and has spread across the world. The history of the last century has indeed been one of widening the lens of equality by expanding who is included as a member of the moral society (Morris, 1997).

An outcome of these efforts to expand the circle of whose rights are recognised has been the inscribing of the principle of equality into the constitution of many societies, and the enacting of equality legislation and judicial decisions to ensure substantive equality beyond mere rhetoric.

What does substantive equality mean in practice? The debate on substantive equality turned on the recognition that “equality”, or the same treatment of other groups, does not result in fair or equal outcomes. It is essential to understand the context – substantial equality recognises that different groups of people experience different circumstances shaped by various contextual factors or social or economic inequalities that reinforce power relations between the advantaged and disadvantaged.

To achieve substantive equality, those who suffered disadvantages in the past are entitled to positive “unequal treatment” in the present (Cooper 2001).

Advancing substantive equality then requires mechanisms such as affirmative action (AA) or quota systems to redress the disadvantage of the past. Such programmes generated resistance from sections within institutions, whether they be business or universities, as unfairly disadvantaging men.

Equally, women who were committed to belief systems of talent or meritocracy were uncomfortable that they would be perceived as “not worthy”. There was an equally strong discourse that even though AA programs successfully opened the door for women and other minorities, they were not being developed or progressing through the hierarchy.

In other words, organisations were not utilising the available talent essential to remain competitive. (Thomas, 1990; Oswik and Noon, 2014). In Sara Ahmed’s words, they hit the “brick wall” and could not break “the glass ceiling” (Ahmed, 2012).

Diversity emerged as an alternative concept to substantive equality in human resource management literature in the 2000s as there was growing concern that the share of white men among new entrants into the labour force would sharply decline over the next two decades in the US and UK (Oswik and Noon, 2014).

From Equality to Diversity

Diversity shifted the focus from the moral concern for combating discrimination and disadvantage experienced by socially marginalised groups (largely women and Black and minority ethnic people) to an expanded notion of workforce diversity encompassing myriad individual differences and diversity policies for the sake of business imperatives and goals.

Diversity is thus more about managing the fact the workforce will include individuals with different characteristics with little priority given to concerns of hierarchy and power differentials. As such, the diversity argument shifted from a rights perspective to that based on improved performance and better chances of survival and growth (through enhanced competitiveness and an improved corporate reputation) (Lorbiecki and Jack 200; Kirton and Greene, 2019).

For universities, the emphasis on diversity is equally grounded in a business case – attract talented people and foster excellence with an eye to rankings, which are emerging as an important factor for the institution’s “marketability”. The marketability of the institution is directly tied to the ability to set fees, attract international students, and secure international/European research funding.

From Diversity to Inclusion

Conceptually, inclusion softens the potentially negative connotations of the business case and discursively accords renewed legitimacy for diversity initiatives within a broader social purpose (Oswick & Noon, 2014, p. 26; Greene & Kirton, 2009).

In academic literature, particularly that of human resource management, inclusion is seen as a movement from group identity to focusing on the individual’s involvement/participation in decision making (Roberson, 2006). Or it is about celebrating difference as an asset, since everyone is unique, and recognising that everyone can contribute?

While celebrating difference is one aspect of inclusion, it is also a complex concept with an inherent tension between a sense of belonging and maintaining a sense of uniqueness.

An individual only feels included when two conditions are met: being treated as an insider (belonging) and yet also encouraged to retain one’s uniqueness confirming his/her difference is valued (Shore et al. 2011; Oswick & Noon, 2014). This is reminiscent of an earlier discourse of sameness and difference in feminist literature on mainstreaming. An unintended consequence of inclusion efforts that prioritise inter-cultural learning (showcasing language, customs, food and festivals) can, in fact, reinforce ‘othering.’

Thus, inclusion is another mechanism for managing difference rather than fundamentally challenging how difference can be a product of underlying systemic inequalities.

Equality, Diversity and Inclusion work that addresses difference at the surface level is ultimately more focused on managing difference than valuing difference, which requires a deeper understanding of how individual identity is shaped through lived experience along multiple axes of inequalities.

To achieve substantive equality, those who suffered disadvantages in the past are entitled to positive "unequal treatment" in the present (Cooper 2001).

From Managing Difference to Valuing Difference – Intersectionality Approach

The Black feminist theorist Kimberly Crenshaw (1989) first articulated the concept of intersectionality in relation to examining the legal response to discrimination which prioritised a single axis view of inequality.

As another Black feminist, Patricia Collins (2015) so eloquently articulated, intersectionality is the understanding that social inequalities are mutually constituting: “race, class, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, nation, ability, and age operate not as unitary, mutually exclusive entities, but rather as reciprocally constructing phenomena.”

In other words, people’s identities and social positions are shaped by multiple factors such as a person’s age, disability status, ethnicity, gender, gender identity, religion or belief, sexual orientation and socio-economic background.

Thus, to understand the experiences of, for instance, Black disabled women staff members requires understanding how the combination of race or racism and disability or ableism, and gender or patriarchy creates specific circumstances. This is different from understanding race, disability and gender separately.

An important challenge intersectionality imposes on equality and diversity work is the need for a clearer understanding of systemic and intersecting inequalities and how power and privilege are produced and reproduced.

The approach underscores that no inequality is more important than another and requires holistic, integrated responses to capture the lived experiences. It underscores the need for constant critical reflection with disaggregated quantitative and qualitative data to understand lived experiences of marginalisation and identify gaps in the effect of policies and procedures.

The approach also requires querying meritocracy, excellence and “talent” (the buzzword of diversity work), particularly in the current context of growing corporate/managerial cultures in universities.

Thus, to value difference, there is a need to not only “celebrate” difference but to also not reinforce systematic inequality through institutional policies and procedures. Applying an intersectional approach does entail deeper institutional self-awareness and deliberate critical reflection regarding the unintended consequences of equality, diversity and inclusion measures.

Such a shift in mindset through critical reflection also makes possible what Scott (2020:179) refers to as a reflexive mode of governance involving the entire university community to confront structures which perpetuate systemic inequalities, and question “the core business of education, research and engagement, what they teach and research, and how they support students and employees to achieve their potential”.

To value difference, there is a need to not only "celebrate" difference but to also not reinforce systematic inequality through institutional policies and procedures.

As universities progress advancing equality, diversity and inclusion, deeper attention must be paid to developing mechanisms to expand access, equality of opportunity and address specific barriers limiting progression.

Equally research and teaching must be transformed by acknowledging and valuing diverse feminist, anti-racist, decolonial and disability scholarship in the university.

Finally, EDI work grounded in an intersectional approach must take active steps to reduce class, gender and racial inequality within the institution with a firm commitment to reduce income disparity between the top and bottom of the academic and professional grades and reducing reliance on temporary, agency and precarious employment.

EDI grounded in an intersectional approach can move the institution from “managing” to truly valuing difference, laying a rock-solid foundation for respect and dignity in the university.


Ahmed, S. (2012) On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life. Durham, NC:
Duke University Press.

Crenshaw, K. (1989) Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist
Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics,
University of Chicago Legal Forum, pp. 139–167

Collins, P. (2015) Intersectionality’s Definitional Dilemmas, Annual Review of Sociology, 41: pp. 1-20. Available at SSRN: or

Cooper, C. (2001) A constitutional reading of the test for unfair discrimination in labour law, Acta Juridica. Cape Town: Juta.

Kirton, G. & Greene, A.M. (2019) Telling and selling the value of diversity and
inclusion—External consultants’ discursive strategies and practices. Human Resource Management Journal, 29:676–691. DOI: 10.1111/1748-8583.12253

Kirton, G., & Greene, A. M. (2009) The costs and opportunities of doing diversity work in mainstream organisations. Human Resource Management Journal, 19, 159–175.

Lorbiecki, A. and G. Jack (2000) Critical turns in the evolution of diversity management’, British Journal of Management, 11, pp. 17–31

Morris, D. (1996) About suffering: Voice, genre and moral community, Daedalus: Special Issue on Social Suffering, 125(Winter): pp. 25-46.

Oswick, C. and Noon, M. ( 2014) Discourses of Diversity, Equality and Inclusion: Trenchant Formulations or Transient Fashions?, British Journal of Management,25 (1): pp. 23-39

Roberson, Q. M. (2006) Disentangling the meanings of diversity and inclusion in organizations, Group and Organization Management, 31, pp. 213–236.

Scott, C. (2020) Managing and Regulating Commitments to Equality,
Diversity and Inclusion in Higher Education, Irish Educational Studies, 39:(2): pp. 175-191. DOI:10.1080/03323315.2020.1754879

Shore, L. M., A. E. Randel, B. G. Chung, M. A. Dean, K. H. Ehrhart and G. Singh (2011) ‘Inclusion and diversity in work groups: a review and model for future research’, Journal of Management, 37, pp. 1262–1289.

Thomas, R. R. (1990) ‘From affirmative action to affirming diversity’, Harvard Business Review, 68, pp. 107–117.Linguistic Diversity: the landscape of 21st Century Ireland


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