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Colorful, not Black and White

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When it comes to the equality of people from diverse backgrounds, religions or sexual orientation, much is still left to be desired. Why a commitment to diversity and inclusion is worth it.

When it comes to filling a vacancy, who will be the preferred candidate for German HR professionals – Sandra Bauer or Meryem Öztürk? Doris Weichselbaumer wanted to get to the bottom of this question. Over the course of a year, the economist from Linz sent close to 1,500 fictitious applications to companies across Germany. Sometimes she applied as a fictional German (Sandra Bauer), at other times she chose the Turkish name Meryem Öztürk. The feedback Weichselbaumer received in response to her otherwise identical applications was sobering. While the seemingly German applicant received an invitation for an interview in 18.8 percent of cases, the apparently Turkish applicant received a positive response to only 13.5 percent of her applications. If her professional photo also showed her wearing a headscarf, only 4.2 percent of her applications resulted in a positive reply. According to the researcher, this means that a woman of Turkish origin wearing a headscarf must write 4.5 times as many applications as a German woman in order to receive an invitation for a job interview.

Likewise, people with a disability, people of color, or those of diverse sexual orientation, have ample experience with the “glass ceiling”, which is still stopping many life plans and careers in their tracks – in private companies as well as in science and politics. Despite public commitment to diversity and inclusion, the corner offices of large companies are still mainly inhabited by white men. And regardless of their education, people with disabilities are more frequently unemployed than people without disabilities who are not as well educated. Even in the area of sports, diversity continues to be an elusive goal as the coming out of the first gay major league soccer player in Germany during their active career is yet to take place.

Where are the female professors?

Even science is not immune to unfairness when it comes to gender. For example, the new U-Multirank Gender Monitor, a sample of close to 2,000 universities in 96 countries, shows that especially in research-intensive universities, the careers of women are thwarted at every level. While women make up approximately half of all undergraduate and Master’s students, they go on to later occupy only 28 percent of professor positions.Scientific journals, too, are often lacking in diversity: scientists at the University of Rhode Island took a closer look at the journal “Biological Invasions” and found that the editorial board was “overwhelmingly American, over-whelmingly white, and with more men than women”, explains Laura Meyerson, Professor of Natural Resources Science and the journal’s deputy editor-in-chief. “Most of our papers were published by Americans and Europeans, though there were many from New Zealand as well. English speaking countries dominated”, adds Meyerson. Data from Africa and Asia are sparse, as only very few studies from those parts of the world are published in peer-reviewed English language journals. “We’re making assumptions and hypotheses and coming to conclusions with only partial information”, criticizes Meyerson.

Exclusively European-derived cell lines

Even medical research still lacks diversity. According to a study published in “Cell”, 95 percent of cell lines used in research worldwide are derived from Europeans. “If most of the cell lines used to discover new drug treatments are from people of European descent, do those drugs work equally well in non-European individuals? More and more evidence has come to light showing that, unfortunately, this is not always the case”, says Sophie Zaaijer of the New York start-up “FIND Genomics”, urging researchers to take underrepresented populations into consideration.

A lack of diversity has dire consequences

– not only for medical research. The unequal treatment of people who look different, as well as think and function differently from oneself, is hard on those affected – in their everyday lives as well as at work. For example, according to a study conducted at the University of Bath, members of the LGBT+ community experienced more conflicts in the workplace than their heterosexual colleagues. They perceive a lower level of psychological safety and also experience lower job satisfaction. This illustrates the difference between diversity and inclusion; inclusion can only thrive when the members of different groups actually feel accepted and valued. The study’s authors urge employers to actively advocate for minorities. “Being proactive on inclusion sends a clear message to current and future employees on the values of your organization regarding how it supports its people”, says Luke Fletcher, Associate Professor, School of Management at the University of Bath.
At least, there is increasing awareness of the problem: within a representative study by Monster, a career portal, half of all those interviewed preferred companies that value diversity. Many firms, however, still have a long road ahead of them: according to Monster, 39 percent of German companies have not yet implemented a diversity and inclusion strategy. This, however, is urgently needed as an inclusive culture will not grow on its own, emphasizes Petra Raspels, Head of People & Organization at PwC Germany and Europe, a consulting firm: “It is not sufficient to simply put diversity and wage inequality on the agenda; companies must tackle them in a concrete and recognizable manner.”

Diversity management at all levels

The “Charta der Vielfalt” (Charter of Diversity) delivers practical ideas for successfully lived diversity in the workplace. According to this organization, good diversity management must be anchored across all areas and levels of hierarchy within the company or institution, and it must translate to everyday life. A first step towards an equitable environment could be the appointment of a new recruiting team. Researchers at the University of Houston found that 23 percent more women will apply for a job if the head of recruiting is a woman. The effect is even more striking if a Hispanic or a black person is head of the HR department: in these cases, the number of applications by the respective minority increases by 100 percent.
Structural changes are needed at all levels in order to create an open company culture – from leadership communication to team composition. Clear communication within the team contributes to the well-being of all staff members and helps reduce turnover. The Competence Center for Diversity and Inclusion at the University of St. Gallen emphasizes that at the end of the day, the key to increased diversity lies in the recognition of its inherent benefits: diverse teams open one’s eyes to new perspectives, and they also possess a broader range of knowledge. This, in turn, makes it easier to deal with complexity. Diversity further enhances innovation potential and improves productivity, as well as overall company performance. Not least, companies with a solid culture of inclusion signal that equal treatment will first and foremost translate to incredible opportunities. It is a fact that diverse and inclusive teams help offset the shortage of skilled personnel. They further open up new target groups and markets, and it is a proven fact that they produce better solutions and more innovative products.