The difference between ‘equality’ and ‘diversity’ research

How often do we pause to consider what we actually mean when we talk about equality and diversity research? Although the terms ‘equality’ and ‘diversity’ are often used interchangeably they have very different meanings and a failure to consider these differences can impede positive change.

A rush to overlook the definitions of equality and diversity often emerges from a rush to overlook your own motives as to why you are involved in equality or diversity work.

For me, the sole purpose of doing equality and diversity research is about gathering evidence to challenge unfair systems of power, which are often based on the remnants of historical structures. Perhaps it comes from my background in history but it is clear to me that there is nothing ‘natural’ about how power is distributed in society, it’s a product of what happened in the past.

A patriarchal system has impacted the career opportunities for women, racism has affected the life chances for minority ethnic people and homophobia has changed how LGBT people think about themselves and are perceived by others.

Equality and diversity research are not same thing. A diversity study might examine the proportion of women in senior leadership positions in your institution or the number of employees who disclosed as disabled. It can help paint a picture of the current situation and is a necessary step in making sense of the issues. However, in isolation, diversity research presents little guidance on how to change what it uncovers.

This is where equality research can pick-up the baton and examine the reasons behind any gaps identified using more complex quantitative methods (such as disaggregated statistical analysis) or qualitative methods (such as focus groups or interviews).

Fighting inequality cannot be achieved by diversity work alone.

As I’ve written about previously, institutional initiatives such as an assessment of the pay gap between male and female employees or the diversification of senior staff are valuable but must function as a step towards something bigger rather than an objective in their own right.

Diversity work can help foster a rich culture where people feel recognised, valued and part of something bigger. But fighting inequality cannot be achieved by diversity work alone. Diversity work does not have enough ammunition in its arsenal. Its strength comes from its openness and desire to bring people together. However, at some point, somebody needs to call out what is wrong with the current situation and fight against existing structures that make these problems exist in the first place. On its own, diversity work is like growing flowers on a piece of waste land without first pulling-out the weeds.

Bringing about change requires resources and, in any institution, resources are finite. There is a danger that doing diversity research in place of equality research presents an illusion of activity that has the potential to bring about limited change. Diversity research is dangerous when it pretends to be something it’s not. It is dangerous when it pretends to be equality work.

Equality and diversity research are strongest when both elements work in tandem. However, to ensure that finite resources support work that challenges unfair structures and systems of power we must all become literate in the difference between ‘equality’ and ‘diversity’ research.

Dr Kevin Guyan is an equality and diversity researcher based in Edinburgh. He is writing in a personal capacity.

Published by Kevin Guyan

Dr Kevin Guyan is a researcher, writer and activist based in Edinburgh whose work explores the intersection of data and identity.

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