August 03, 2020 10:30 AM

The Evolution of Diversity in the Workplace - 2000 to 2020

Incredibly, diversity in the workplace has been something of a hot topic for nearly two decades now. But diversity initiatives in the year 2000 looked very different to those we now have in the year 2020. From gender to cultural background, let’s take a closer look at how these initiatives have evolved in the past twenty years. 

But first, a little history.

The history of diversity

Believe it or not, diversity in the workplace was a much-debated topic as far back as the Second World War. It was around this time that many women entered employment to help cover the major workforce shortages due to men carrying out their military service. 

However, despite women taking an active role in the workplace during the 1940s, the following decades saw women’s opportunities for employment severely curtailed. 

The 1940s was also the decade that saw President Truman of the US sign Executive Order 9981. This was the first legal move to desegregate the US army which until that point had been, for the most part, segregated based on ethnicity. This is believed to be the first legislation regarding diversity in the workplace and paved the way for similar initiatives across multiple sectors and industries albeit at a much slower pace.

The civil rights movement of the 1960s offered more opportunities for cultural and ethnic diversity in the workplace. But as with gender diversity, it took many decades for employers to truly understand the value behind diversity initiatives based on cultural background or ethnicity. 

By the 80s and 90s, we saw women entering the workforce on a more regular basis. Not just that but they were also entering industries that were until this point dominated by men. Cultural diversity, on the other hand, had stalled somewhat and was largely ignored as a positive until after the turn of the century.

The 2000s - Gender the main focus

By late 1999 and early 2000, women’s participation in the US workforce reached an all-time peak. At this point, 60% of women were in employment. This has remained relatively consistent in the two decades since with 2018 stats showing that 57.1% of women were in the workplace. 

The year 2000 also saw women make up 39.49% of the global workforce. Again the most recent research data shows that this has remained relatively unchanged with women making up 38.85% of the workforce in 2019

This is in most part due to the implementation of gender diversity initiatives during the 80s and 90s. Incredibly, those initiatives spurred on by the feminist movement of the 70s saw women in the US take the lion’s share of management positions created between 1980 and 2010. In those thirty years, US employers created 4.5 million management roles and women filled 2.6 million of those positions.  

By the 2000s, employers had begun to see the fruits of their labor and so focused much of their efforts on creating an inclusive workplace that welcomed and valued the talents of female candidates. Recruitment practices changed with female candidates given equal opportunities for the majority of roles. 

However, despite this focus on gender diversity throughout the decade, women still remained underrepresented at board level. 

The 2010s - Breaking down cultural and physical barriers

With the coming of the 2010s, less focus was placed on gender diversity with many employers feeling that women were now on an equal footing with their male counterparts. However the Uber scandal of 2017 showed us that while female candidates could compete with their male counterparts, there was still a lot of work to be done in terms of respect in the workplace. It was a timely reminder that gender diversity and equality will always remain a crucial workplace topic. 

But the decade will likely be remembered most for the importance placed on cultural, and to a lesser extent, physical diversity. 

In this decade the US workforce was made up of 60% non-hispanic white people while 17% were hispanic and 12% were African Americans. Interestingly though, 17% of the workforce consisted of foreign-born immigrants of which a large percentage were Asians. This was the most culturally diverse workforce the US had ever seen and it also coincided with one of the most productive periods in the nation’s history in terms of both technology and innovation.

Employers were quick to realize that cultural diversity in the workplace brought significant benefits. And so recruitment practices were once again tweaked to appeal to a more ethnically diverse talent pool. 

But this didn’t just happen in the US. Employers all over the world noticed that by broadening their talent search to include candidates from culturally diverse backgrounds, they could improve productivity and foster innovation. 

On a related note, this was also the decade that saw the emergence of remote work as a significant employee benefit. The ability to work remotely not only opened up a much more culturally diverse talent pool but also allowed employers to include candidates with physical disabilities in their searches. 

It was a hugely significant development as it once again opened the discussion in relation to physically disabled candidates. This was an aspect of diversity initiatives that never truly got the attention it merited, but thankfully, the 2010s was a decade of change. 

The benefits for candidates were obvious — they could now apply for and work in jobs that were once closed off to them. But the benefits for employers were even greater. Studies by the International Labor Organisation (ILO) tell us that there are 1 billion people in the world with disabilities and that 80% are of working age

By accounting for disabilities in their diversity programs, employers were now able to widen their talent pool by a considerable margin. 

The later years of the decade also saw employers embrace the idea of generational diversity where teams were made up of employees from different age groups. This encouraged forward thinking with younger employees challenging the traditional norms while also benefiting from the experience of their senior colleagues. 

2020 - A new way of thinking

While gender diversity at board level is still a bone of contention, cultural diversity and the inclusion of people with disabilities in the workplace has come on in leaps and bounds. In 2020, employers now truly understand the value of such initiatives so much so that many are looking for even more ways to diversify their workforce. 

In the coming years, we expect to see neural diversity or neurodiversity take the limelight. This is where employers look to encourage innovation and boost productivity through the integration of people with different ways of thinking. So, believe it or not, thinking outside the box is becoming a skill that is much sought after by employers and recruiters alike. 

The idea is a little similar to that of generational diversity where younger generations are more likely to initiate change. By hiring people who think differently, an employer is introducing a disruptor to the team. Strangely enough, it wasn’t that long ago that this would have been considered a terrible idea. 

As you can see, while diversity has always been a key aspect of recruitment and talent acquisition, it has evolved a great deal since President Truman signed that Executive Order way back in the 1940s. From gender to generational diversity, it seems that we have perfected the art of diversification to such a point that we’re very close to achieving the dream of a truly heterogeneous workforce. 

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