In 2023, the global equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) market was valued at £7.2bn ($9bn) – yet, recently, some voices from Westminster haven’t been very complimentary of its efforts to drive change.  

A recent report from the government’s Inclusion at Work Panel, for example, found that much EDI practice is ‘ineffective’, or even ‘counterproductive’, with the Conservatives’ Business and Trade Secretary, and Minister for Women and Equalities, Kemi Badenoch MP, raising concern that “discussions are often bogged down by performative gestures”.  

This sentiment was echoed by participants in research for The Young Foundation’s recent report, Beyond Buzzwords, which showed that widespread EDI issues persist across the professions – and that progress towards more inclusive workplaces risks unravelling as scepticism grows about the authenticity of initiatives. As one professional stated, “it’s very much the tick box exercise … nothing actually ever happens”. 

An illusion of value? 

Often, the recommended route for organisations to demonstrate their commitment to positive change is to ‘put your money where your mouth is’ and invest in EDI programmes. In reality, this usually means hiring an EDI consultant, staff member, or small team – who often have to fight tooth and nail, against significant resistance, to shift the dial.  

Yet, as one expert interviewee put it, “the diversity profession has a problem” as this formula has let many professionals down. Leading EDI consultant and author, Lily Zheng, has drawn attention to an ‘industrial complex’ which means the EDI industry profits from its ineffective solutions, by maintaining the very issues it exists to address. 

Indeed, in their book, The Big Con (2023), Mariana Mazzucato and Rosie Collington analyse the broader consulting industry, arguing that it is the central purpose of large consultancy firms to create an illusion of value from which they profit. Focusing on ‘climate consulting’, Mazzucato and Collington expose how these firms appear to support environmental challenges, but simultaneously enable climate inaction through their other business endeavours. Additionally, The Young Foundation’s work exploring the ‘S’ in ESG highlights the limitations of organisations’ typically very narrow definition of social responsibilities of business. Unsurprisingly to me, it’s the likes of McKinsey and Boston Consulting Group that produce the most compelling evidence on the ‘business case’ for EDI. 

A ‘value for money’ approach? 

As the government’s report advises data-driven initiatives to monitor impact, with Badenoch urging for “more effective EDI decisions that represent proper value for money” – could this approach overcome the EDI ‘industrial complex’? 

I think it is important to look closer at the government’s rhetoric. Prior to this report, ahead of the Spring Budget, the BBC predicted that the Chancellor, Jeremy Hunt MP, would tell cash-stripped councils to cut ‘wasteful’ and ‘unnecessary’ spending on ‘woke’ diversity schemes. After significant criticism, the line didn’t feature in the budget itself. But the speculation mirrors an often-heard excuse, that action on EDI needs to be proportionate, and simply is not viable for many organisations. It’s as if these concerns can just be set aside.  

It is abundantly clear from The Young Foundation’s work and research with professionals that, in fact, EDI issues fundamentally shape their everyday working lives. Of course, it is important that taxpayer money is spent effectively – but I worry the government’s approach risks mobilising the inefficacy of EDI initiatives as political fodder, rather than addressing its own role in reinforcing the uneven distribution of opportunity and support for professionals across the country. 

The political economy of EDI  

Where does this leave us? We seem to be stuck in a cycle where some sell a ‘business case’ and profit from EDI challenges, while others diminish the problem, suggesting we can only invest in EDI if there is an appropriate ‘business case’. Together, this creates a state of inertia where we are constantly (re-)naming the issue, and stating its importance, rather than effectively responding to it. This only serves to perpetuate inequalities and fuel a backlash against social justice principles – wasting valuable resources in the meantime. 

It seems to me that this very political economy of EDI stands in the way of meaningful action. If we want to drive a fairer future, we must redress the power imbalances that mean certain people and communities are consistently marginalised, silenced and underrepresented in systems that powerfully affect their life chances and wellbeing.  

The power of participation  

This is no easy task. In particular, as highlighted through our research, there is a careful line to tread in order to involve those with lived experience of marginalisation in initiatives, without burdening them with the responsibility to drive change. One professional shared feeling “quite fed up, quite tired, quite exhausted, quite dejected” because they are “always the one that has to keep it on the agenda and bring it up”.  

I, therefore, pose a challenge to those in a position to invest in EDI: do not accept defeat or give into the EDI ‘industrial complex’. Investment in these challenges is vital – but to ensure resources are spent wisely, we need to develop radical new ways of working together across communities, state, and business. It is only if we shift our mindsets and values towards embracing the power of participation, that we will jolt out of our inertia and open up collaborative, unbounded approaches to creating meaningful change with and for workers.   

Read Beyond Buzzwords, The Young Foundation’s research into EDI across the UK’s professions.

Education & Employment Health & wellbeing Inequality business careers diversity EDI employment equality fairer future HR inclusion inequalities inequality management marginalisation meaningful change participation people management power imbalances representation social justice underrepresentation workplace Posted on: 26 June 2024 Authors: Alice Bell,


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