CHECK AGAINST DELIVERY
I am delighted to be here this morning to welcome you all to this Diversity Charter Ireland Signing Event which is being hosted by Fidelity International.
This event is intended to promote diversity management in the workplace. It is very encouraging to see six more high profile companies situated here in Ireland signing up today to the Diversity Charter, bringing the total number of companies to 51. I want to congratulate all of the 51 companies. I have read the Diversity Charter. It is a win/win for everybody, companies and organisations, employees, customers and wider society.
Our civil and public services are currently striving to make themselves more attractive to, and accepting of, diversity. All Government Departments and Offices are implementing the Civil Service Renewal Plan, the vision of which is to provide a world-class service to the State and to the people of Ireland.
The overall mission of the Civil Service Renewal Plan emphasises that citizens will be served efficiently, equally and with respect. Those three words are important. However, on this occasion, I would like to stress the word “equally” and its partner “equality”. Each of us whether we are a colleague or a customer – or indeed a service user – deserves to get equal treatment.
As Minister of State for Equality, it is part of my responsibility to oversee the implementation and ongoing development of equality legislation in Ireland. This legislation is vital to the workplaces in this country in ensuring that fairness is paramount in how employees, customers and service users are treated.
I will continue to keep the equality legislation under review and will propose changes where I feel that improvements to the daily lives and working lives of individuals in this country can be achieved.
Equality should not just be a word that sits on a poster in a building’s reception area. Diversity should not merely be an interesting photograph in annual reports. Equality and diversity both need to mean something. They need to permeate organisations right up to and including the top tier of management. Having a diverse workforce can be a powerful engine for productivity and harmony if organisations are led and managed appropriately.
We know how older people, our senior citizens, can sometimes be disregarded and their valuable life experience ignored.
We know that there are buildings, services and modes of transport that are inaccessible to people with disabilities.
We know that there are societies internationally where it is dangerous to be a member of the LGBTI community.
We all know of the societal problems caused when there is a lack of acceptance of difference in skin colour.
In our own country, we are aware of the difficulties encountered by members of the Traveller and Roma communities.
We have all heard the phrase “hate crime”.
We are all aware how much easier it is nowadays, with the ready availability of modern technology, for certain people to comment cruelly about other people’s appearance or criticise in a very hurtful and sometimes damaging way.
These so called “keyboard warriors” tend to hide anonymously behind the wall that technology provides and to write things that no one in his or her right mind would say in person, in public. Sometimes things go further, when truly hateful, hurtful and damaging things are said.
The criminal law must provide protection from hate speech and crime motivated by prejudice against another person. Providing such protection recognises the impact such crimes have on the victim. The 2008 EU Framework Decision on racism and xenophobia acknowledges that racism and xenophobia are "direct violations of the principles of liberty, democracy, respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms and the rule of law" which are principles upon which the European Union is founded and which are common to the Member States. There are robust mechanisms in place under Irish law to deal with discrimination, hate speech and racist crime in line with the EU Framework Decision. But, we must be ever ready to take whatever other steps are necessary - legislative or otherwise - to challenge and combat any and all manifestations of racism and other forms of prejudice.
It is also worth thinking about those who can sometimes be forgotten about in conversations on diversity - people from different socio-economic groups.
Lack of access to resources and supports can prevent boys and girls, men and women achieving their full potential.
Whether it’s financial hardship, family breakdown, or lack of education and skills, people from lower socio-economic backgrounds can sometimes feel that employment with some of our companies and organisations may be beyond their reach. For them equality of opportunity is a theory, rather than a reality.
But, there are positive and exciting initiatives as well.
Many universities have specific ‘access’ programmes, dedicated to giving students from diverse backgrounds the extra supports they need to get into and complete their education. Many companies have outreach programmes too.
While we have cut our jobless figures from a high of 15.2% in January 2012 to 6.1% last month. We have introduced extended social welfare supports to help eliminate the poverty trap preventing people taking up employment. We are working to reduce the cost of childcare and target early educational intervention to vulnerable children.
Yet the barriers to opportunity remain solid and strong for some people.
Not supporting equality and diversity is not supporting opportunity.
Everything I have seen in my career to date has convinced me that equality of opportunity benefits everyone because it makes societies more just and fair.
All evidence suggests that organisations only benefit when they reflect the diversity that exists in the wider community. Gender balance on executive boards is linked to organisational performance. A diverse workforce reduces the risks of stagnation associated with ‘groupthink’ mentalities. Here is Ireland we have seen how an open economy and membership of the European Union has provided access to a wealth of new ideas and modern business practices from across the globe.
All of these are pretty persuasive reasons, if needed, why we all need to ensure equality and diversity is reflected in our organisations; whether we are Senior Executives, Chairpersons of Boards or Government Ministers.
Initiatives such as the Diversity Charter help to establish strong foundations for equality and diversity in the workplace in Ireland.
Now think of yourself. What words and images come to mind when your name is mentioned? Try to ensure that you frame it realistically and positively. What can you share with your colleagues that would help them to achieve their working goals? How can you contribute to your company in providing a more open and accepting service by using the special talents, skills and experiences that only you have?
If we think of all the people who work with us and our customers and service users, we should of the shy person. Or the person from another country who is not yet used to Ireland. Or the person with a disability. Or the person who finds it difficult to communicate. Or the person with problems. Or the person we do not particularly like. How can we be more accepting of diversity? We can do that by reframing how we deal with people. Accentuate the positive, as the old song goes. We should try not to think in terms of stereotypes. We should focus on ability, capacity and on the individual. We all need to be aware of any inbuilt biases we may have so that they do not impact in negative way how we perceive people, how we engage with people. We need to stay positive.
Until quite recently, Irish society was relatively homogenous. To see someone from a faraway land was quite exotic.
In today’s Ireland, we have a wonderful array of nationalities, cultures, languages, religions and cuisines readily apparent among us.
Members of our own families as well as friends of ours have gone abroad to live and work. Think of how much we want them to be valued and to succeed wherever they go.
Now think about the fact that there are other people’s children coming to our shores who also want to be valued, who also have a lot to offer our country.
Having such diversity among us is not a problem but a wonderful asset. Whether it’s race, ethnic, disability, gender or socio-economic exclusion, we pay a price if we fail to engage with and accommodate diversity. In April 2016, there were 535,475 non-Irish nationals living in Ireland. Of these, 293,830 were working. That’s almost 15% of this country’s workforce.
My Department is at the coalface of equality and diversity in Ireland. The Department of Justice and Equality operates the Immigration and Naturalisation Service, which is opening up our island to a fantastic array of cultures, ethnicities and experiences. The Department of Justice and Equality provided the wording of the Referendum on Same Sex Marriage and ensured that legislation was produced to enable the voter’s decision to allow marriage equality to happen. The Department of Justice and Equality stands against the discrimination of citizens. We administer the law which protects them. Earlier this year, we published the National Strategy for Women and Girls 2017-2020, the National Disability Inclusion Strategy 2017-2021, the National Traveller and Roma Inclusion Strategy 2017-2021, and the Migrant Integration Strategy 2017-2020. These strategies, among other things, renew our resolve to - have gender equality in the workplace, and to increase the number of people with disabilities, as well as increase the number of members of the Traveller and Roma communities and migrants, entering into the workforce.
The Employment Equality Acts 1998 to 2015 cover employees in both the public and private sectors as well as applicants for employment and training. These Acts outlaw discrimination in work-related areas such as pay, vocational training, access to employment, work experience and promotion.
As many of you know, the grounds on which discrimination is outlawed by the Employment Equality Acts are as follows:
- Sexual orientation
- Civil status
- Family status
- Religious belief
- Race, colour, nationality, ethnic or national origins, and
- Membership of the Traveller community.
In reality, both private and public organisations can manage to comply with equality legislation without actually being diverse. But we can do so much better.
What I want to ask organisations to do is to go beyond the bare minimum prescribed by the legislation and do much more. Be more proactive. Be creative in a constructive way. Make a decision to embrace diversity in our practices, policies and principles as well as in our mission statements and charters. There are many benefits for organisations who do this, as well as for greater society.
Interventions can be successful, but they need to be ambitious, sustained and responsive to our diversity. We cannot be complacent. We cannot settle for good enough. We need to reject the excuses.
We cannot rely on past achievements and hope that they will somehow keep paying off. We must always strive to do better, to reach out and support, encourage and welcome everybody so that everybody feels valued – so that everyone feels equal.
Equality is not just a word in my job title. Diversity is not just a picture in an annual report.
They are the basis of successful businesses, strong communities and bright futures.
Thank you very much for the invitation to be with you today. Congratulations and well done to the 51 companies and organisations who have signed up to the Diversity Charter Ireland. I hope that many more will follow your example on the Charter in a win/win for everybody.