Diversity in the Workplace: How the 'D' Word Is Holding Back Progress

Traders work during the afternoon session on the floor of the Stock Exchange in Istanbul September 18, 2008. Men and women need to embrace their differences to reap the benefits of diversity in the workplace. Fatih Saribas/Reuters

Diversity has become dangerously divisive. Really, it's always been a topic that elicits a wide range of reactions, from real enthusiasm (usually among the underrepresented) to eye-rolling or outright hostility (I was once accused of "ruining British businesses" through my attempts to improve gender diversity on corporate boards).

But over much of the past decade, the scepticism seemed to be fading, against a growing crescendo of support. The global financial crisis made the case for diversity more powerfully—and painfully—than any theory. It was all too obvious that corporate boards, management teams and policy-making bodies made up of similar people were inherently flawed—especially if those similarities encompassed gender, race, age, education and social circles. This was a moment to seize—and so the 30% Club launched in 2010 to encourage chairmen (99 of the FTSE-100 chairs were men) to champion better gender-balanced boards.

Over the following few years, not only did the representation of women on FTSE-100 boards more than double but the mindset shifted in the U.K. This was no longer a special interest issue but everyone's issue. The 30% Club approach, men and women working together, has since been adopted in 10 countries and the programs encompass the whole career journey, from schoolroom to boardroom.

But we're now at a crossroads. The gender issue in particular is a well-worn subject but not yet one we have mastered. Yes, there are more female world leaders and company directors, but many women tell me they feel discouraged about their prospects. They can't see the link between their own reality and gender equality efforts that often seem targeted at a narrow group of white, privileged and highly educated women, rather than at all women.

I am optimistic that the next breakthrough is within reach, that the many upheavals in our world are creating another, bigger moment to seize. Technology has changed how we work, communicate and influence. Centuries-old patriarchal, command-and-control power structures are rapidly breaking down, and emerging instead is a more democratic, inclusive notion of power. Leaders today need to be able to connect. This is good news for people who are empathetic, who are collaborative—qualities that are often described as feminine, although obviously men can exhibit them too.

Women of my generation who've made it to senior roles (and even fewer ethnic minorities, gay or disabled people) had to fit in with past practices to succeed. Today, we have an unprecedented opportunity to reinvent the rules, to create new ways of working, living and bringing up families, to be relevant to everyone in a digital, networked world. We no longer need to lean in: instead, we can change the system.

But a new danger looms. The diversity agenda has gone off track and we need to remind ourselves of the basics again. Diversity is about being different, and inclusion is about welcoming those differences. Somehow that has become confused with the opposite notion, that valuing people as equals means suppressing our differences.

The row over Google engineer James Damore's "Echo-Chamber" memo reflects the misplaced hyper-sensitivity; his language was clumsy and inflammatory, but his main argument, that Google's approach to diversity might be flawed because men and women often have different interests, should have sparked debate, not outcry. I am the mother of six girls and three boys, a big enough sample size to feel quite confident that nature, as well as nurture, plays a role. Instead of denying the obvious, we should focus on ensuring our differences are valued equally. I don't need to be the same as a man to be as valuable!

More broadly, our intentions to be inclusive have morphed into bizarre, counterintuitive situations. We've tied ourselves in knots: in the U.K., there is a serious suggestion that the next census won't ask about gender at all, and the headmistress of a single-sex school with the word "girls" in its name says she avoids referring to "girls" at all. For many, these developments seem ridiculous and risk making a mockery out of diversity, as well as undermining efforts to continue making progress for women. And many companies report a dilemma over creating diverse lists of job candidates; if they set targets against each dimension (socio-economic background, ethnicity, sexual orientation), that feels over-contrived, like manufacturing a pop band. We need a more common sense and nuanced approach.

Any significant change program needs to be assessed and adjusted from time to time. Questioning our approach to diversity does not mean questioning diversity itself. Right now, we need to undertake an honest review—nothing should be off-limits. We may even need to drop the "D" word if it has become too charged. That may feel like a backward step, but it's a needed reset to help us make that next big breakthrough toward a truly inclusive, modern society.

Dame Helena Morrissey is the founder of the 30% Club, which campaigns for greater representation of women on FTSE-100 boards, and will take part in the Battle of Ideas Festival on October 28, at the Barbican Centre, London.