Inclusion in the workplace: learning from social policy

It is increasingly commonsense, in business management literature, to claim that the next step on from focusing on diversity is to focus on inclusion. The commonsense wisdom seems to be that, rather than focus merely on characteristics that mark points of assumed difference, optimal workplace performance requires that those differences are brought together in ways that minimise tensions and maximise acceptance and belonging.

The focus on inclusion is undoubtedly important. In the best-case scenario, the focus on inclusion opens-up the possibility of genuine transformation in workplaces – of not just adding people in, but of doing things differently in order to benefit all workers. Yet, in making the shift from ‘diversity’ to ‘inclusion’ in the workplace, there are some important lessons that can be learned from social policy debates on ‘social inclusion’.

In the 1990s, during the peak of the Blair Government in the UK and the Clinton Government in the USA (both of whom subscribed to the ideology of a ‘third way’ in politics), ‘social inclusion’ became the dominant policy paradigm for thinking on social welfare. In this context, as Nikolas Rose has argued, the commonsense wisdom was that people who relied upon social welfare were at the margins and that they needed to be ‘included’ back into the social mainstream; typically through forced engagement with unpaid work. There is an extensive literature on social inclusion policy, its antecedents and its effects, including an excellent book by sociologist Ruth Levitas.

One important critical point that was made, though perhaps not often enough acknowledged, is that the focus on inclusion tended to obscure and to normalise the existing distribution of advantages, rather than recognise that poverty and inequality are the products of historic injustice and policy decisions. Whatever the differences between social inclusion as a social policy framework, and inclusion as a workplace diversity framework, this point is highly relevant.

It is easy to think sometimes, given the discourse on diversity and inclusion, that prior to very recently, gay people, women of all sexualities, non-Anglo Australians and people with disability didn’t exist in workplaces. This is, however, not quite the case. While management positions still fail to be representative of the broader communities that they are based in, workplaces have always been diverse. It’s just that some identities have not been welcome and, consequently, it has been acceptable to treat certain population groups in ways that, either required them to hide or suppress their identities, or in ways that harass, demean, or marginalise them. Indeed, as the Australian Human Rights Commission highlights, in Australia, anti-discrimination in the workplace policies date back to 1966.

In embracing the move to inclusion in workplaces, therefore, it is worth remaining mindful of the ways in which workplace policies and practices have historically excluded and/or marginalised people based on some aspect of their identity. Women, for example, were historically barred from many occupations. Indeed, until 1966 in Australia women were barred from working in the public sector after marriage. This policy that ensured that women would not be considered for supervisory roles and that married women missed out on work-related entitlements like superannuation – and it continues to have its trace in women’s lower rates of superannuation and retirement savings and in women’s underrepresentation in leadership roles.

In 2008 then AHRC Commissioner Graeme Innes discussed the findings of a year-long study into discrimination against people in same-sex relationships in the area of financial and workplace entitlements. The inquiry found 58 pieces of federal law that discriminated against same-sex couples. While 84 laws were amended following the release of the report, and protections for same-sex couples have improved in the years since its release, this is an important example of the recent and ongoing history of workplace exclusion.

Meanwhile, people with disability continue to experience acts of exclusion, such as employers refusing to provide assistive technologies – even when there are government initiatives to cover the costs of assistive technology – which keep them from participating in the workplace. Australia ranks only 21 out of 29 in the OECD in employment for people with disability.

Paying attention to these historic, and ongoing, trends might help to shift the focus of diversity initiatives from those deemed ‘different’ or ‘diverse’ to the often unacknowledged workplace structures, norms, and processes that exclude them.

Angie Bletsas is a senior consultant at Rapid Context. She specialises in in critical analysis, academic and applied research project design and management. Specialist expertise in social policy.

Recent Posts
Search By Tags