Is diversity too big an issue for small businesses?

The benefits of a diverse workforce are clear to see. But if the opportunity for diversity doesn't present itself, can it be an unrealistic goal for a small business owner?

Diversity is a huge talking point in today’s business world. The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy recently released a report suggesting targets of 33 per cent women in senior leadership positions by 2020. Businesses have had to show their hand on their gender pay gaps. We’ve heard talk of race and disability-focused employment quotas, and there has been concern from some quarters over a perceived prejudice among UK employers towards transgender workers.

But as society demands a utopian workforce of multiple races, genders, and outlooks, is it ok to ask, as smaller business owners, whether we have as much time for diversity as we’re being urged we should?

Let’s be clear. It’s a no-brainer that a diverse workforce is better for all. Diversity can promote a broader scope of ideas and innovation. It can provide encouragement for all that being accepted and valued professionally is achievable regardless of skin colour, gender, or perceived position in society.

But how does this thinking square with the small business owner who wants to hire and manage the best employees available – regardless of their demographic profile – but sees a lack of diversity in the talent pool?

Take the engineering sector for example; an industry comprising around 90 per cent men, and one that is said to be deficient in ethnic minority representation. By simple probability, if I run a business of 20 staff in this field, 18 of them are likely to be contributing to a decidedly macho, and largely white, workforce.

It may not be a desirable atmosphere, even for some of the white men employed. But the nature of the supply of labour in the sector dictates that this vibe, at least for now, may be the prevalent one.

“We can always do more to promote sectors like engineering to underrepresented demographic groups”

Quotas, for example, could be well and good if a diverse representation is stunted by genuine instances of discrimination. But when that isn’t the case, shouldn’t we be assessing candidates based on ability rather than their gender or racial status?

If it turns out that, in a given industry, the majority of skilled candidates are all women, many would view this as acceptable. But when the majority are men, people see a problem. Unless (and it can indeed be a big ‘unless’) there isn’t an active culture of marginalisation when it comes to treatment of minorities, are there not instances where this situation can also be acceptable?

That’s not at all to say that we shouldn’t be trying to make a difference on the diversity front. We can always do more to promote the engineering sector, for example, to underrepresented demographic groups, and give them as much chance as possible to succeed without feeling they are being ostracised.

But as it stands, if I want to employ staff who can sustain my business and keep the wolf from the door, I can only work with what’s available. In overseeing a non-diverse pool of labour should I really be made to feel I am contributing to a problem?

Running a small business is a constant balancing act between what is ideal and what is realistic, and for many business owners, I suspect this is one instance where diversity, very often, may cede priority to simply surviving.

For more content on diversity in business, please visit our sister site DiversityQ.

Ben Lobel

Delphine Hintz

Ben Lobel was the editor of from 2010 to 2018. He specialises in writing for start-up and scale-up companies in the areas of finance, marketing and HR.

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