Celia de Anca
24 April 2003
Affirmative action can go only so far to successfully manage diversity in organizations. New factors are increasing diversity, and fresh policies must be found to meet this new reality.
Diversity is not a novelty in the business world. What is new however is the fact that women represent a high percentage of the working population (40 percent in Spain) and their slow but steady rise to top management positions. Also new is the aging of the population. As a consequence, age diversity is now an important factor to take into consideration in business structure. European integration and globalization are also causing considerable cultural interaction, another element which contributes to increased diversity in today’s companies.
Differences in personality or competencies lead to varying points of view, ways of working and thinking. These have traditionally been smoothed over by imposing a homogeneity that allows less controversial development. What today’s firms are experimenting in is not just a new reality, but a new approach; a paradigm able to function in a varied and changing world. The question is no longer how to introduce a model to which all workers must stick, but to adapt to the potential that the diversity of its members can offer.
Encouraging diversity arises in the company from a double approach, one that’s both external and internal: the social and the legal. Firms try to respond to society. And society, after all, is constituted by its customers, shareholders, providers, workers and managers, who look for a company that is able to reflect their reality and needs. This fundamental and crucial social demand is the first step toward a deeper corporate reform in organizations who wish to manage and integrate diversity efficiently, in order to achieve effectiveness and improve the innovation process.
[*D Affirmative action *]
For more than three decades, mainly in the U.S., positive discrimination policies have been supporting minority groups with little representation in companies. These policies have been successful in many cases, but have provoked feelings of frustration. For it became apparent that despite the minorities’ initial improvement, existing social and cultural blocks impeded fuller professional development. In the U.S., for example, women make up 12 percent of the Fortune 500 Board of Directors. In Spain it’s four percent. Affirmative action policies have produced, in some cases, stigmatization of minority groups, which have seldom been judged by their achievement, but rather as mere products of their minority.
Positive discrimination might help improve a group in a clear discriminatory position. However, these policies have to be completed with more generalized reform directed to all collectives inside the company.
The added value brought by each individual is the key to innovation. For innovation to germinate, these differences must be valued. The working environment must allow creation of projects that, apart from a wage and job, offer possibilities of personal growth, development of family life and other outside activities or hobbies.
There are no recipes for successful diversity management. Many companies, particularly in the U.S., the U.K. and Germany, and to a lesser degree Spain, are inaugurating policies consisting basically of flexible human resources directives, and in diversity training and management for all personnel. Changes are targeted for the medium term. To reach these targets, it is essential to have participation of top executives, of workers who believe in the changes, of customers who support firms which respond to their ethical ideas, and of shareholders - who, besides a necessary and lawful short-term profitability, envisage sustained growth in the medium term.
All in all, the change being produced means greater implication of the company in society and of society in its working environment. This should allow the company to grow in the global world, while letting its members grow internally and innovate.