Addressing workplace diversity challenges

By Professor Catherine Cassell

About the author

Professor Catherine Cassell is Deputy Dean of Leeds University Business School and Professor of Organisational Psychology. Her research interests are in the areas of change, learning and diversity at work.

International Women's Day has its origin in the struggles that working women experienced in seeking to achieve equality in pay and conditions at the start of the last century. Each year, March 8th offers us the opportunity to both celebrate the contribution of women to our worldwide economy, and also to reflect upon what progress has been made. 

Researchers at Leeds University Business School are now engaged in an exciting new project working with a major international retailer to consider the progression of women and other groups in their organisation. The project is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, together with a contribution from the company. 

An important aspect of this project is that we are working with the company concerned to try and make a difference in relation to diversity and inclusion. The Business School team of Kathryn Watson, Kyle Griffith, Usman Aslam and myself - together with Professor Jackie Ford and Karen Correia de Silva at the University of Bradford - have teamed up with senior executives to investigate comprehensively the barriers faced by women and other groups in developing and progressing their careers. 

Our early discussions with senior Board level members have highlighted a real commitment within the company to change and to ensure that all staff feel included and have the opportunity to contribute within the workplace. Like many other leading edge companies, they recognise both the moral and economic necessity of strategies that promote diversity and inclusion. 

We are currently working on a questionnaire for all staff within the company, together with interviews with staff in different areas within the business and around the UK. We are interested to understand the experiences of staff from all different groups, so that we can design effective interventions to address any diversity challenges that the research may raise.  

We are also keen to see how both company leaders and different groups of employees view the characteristics required for success within the company and to assess whether these are appropriately reflected in career support initiatives. We want to grasp the perceptions of employees in the company with regard to career development and progression, promotion, promotional opportunities, and company support for personal development.

As well as working with the company, the research aims to understand and improve our knowledge of the effective and successful implementation of diversity and inclusion strategies in the retail sector and organisations more generally.

Managing workplace diversity effectively is a complex task. Research evidence suggests that even when companies have the best intentions, women can still be excluded from a wide range of opportunities. Reasons include the lack of access to informal networks, barriers that emerge from caring responsibilities, and the cultural expectations that the best types of leaders are usually male.

All the academic evidence suggests that there is still a lot to do before we can claim that women are truly equal to men in the workplace. We would hope that by the next International Women’s Day, we will have some interesting and positive findings to report from the project. 

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