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Polish migrant workers at a construction site in Norway, © IOM, 2013

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© Joana Lieball, Network Migration in Europe, 2013

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A Sri Lankan labour migrant takes care of a 90 year old Italian woman, © IOM

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© Walter Reich/

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Asylum-seekers in a language class at the federal asylum reception centre in Kapel [ ]


Definitions of diversity

The term “diversity” means the state or quality of being different or varied. On the one hand, diversity describes the actual condition of an increasingly heterogeneous society. On the other hand, it refers to a specific goal, which is the possibility to shape the existing diversity. It is undisputed that,
- in the context of progressing globalization, diversity increases both qualitatively and quantitatively and
- that the term diversity is used in an increasing number of contexts.
The term diversity not only refers to race, ethnicity, and religious beliefs but also to aspects such as gender and, more recently, disability status and sexual orientation. Furthermore, factors such as age and socioeconomic status are gaining increasing importance. Given its high complexity, diversity is often dealt with in reduced and reductionist ways. Today, the term diversity is used in different social contexts, for example
- as a catchword in order to improve public image
- in management concepts
- as a label to bring forward economic interests
- as a strategy against xenophobia and racism or
- as an alternative concept opposing the concept of (immigrant) integration.
Diversity is explicitly stressed as something positive with an enormous potential for social and economic development. It is regarded as a concept that could lead to a change in paradigm, leaving deficit-oriented programs behind and instead adopting an appreciative stance towards heterogeneity. Generally, diversity as a strategy in human resource development in business companies, in administration, education, social work or as a strategy that applies to society as a whole should contribute to the integration of minorities and marginalized groups into society as well as to shape a discrimination-free coexistence.
It would be no longer the task of „minorities“ to become just like the „majority.“ In the ideal case, recognition of diversity would lead to a change of awareness in the minds of people. In other words, the perception and reflection on the handling of differences and the treatment of, for instance, “foreigners” is strengthened.
Nevertheless, the question of how this shift in awareness is to be practically implemented in order to reach more participation and equal opportunities needs further clarification. The concept of diversity has no clear definition; but the definition of diversity differs from person to person, from organization to organization, and from author to author. In some organizations, concepts of diversity are strictly focused upon race, gender, religion, and disability status; in other organizations, the concept of diversity is extended to sexual orientation, body image, and socioeconomic status.
The programs and ways to implement diversity are as different as the concepts of diversity are vague and varied. Often, these programs are subsumed under the generic terms “diversity management” and “diversity mainstreaming”. As a common feature, all these different implementations of diversity place an emphasis on the positive character of a diverse society or group of people on the respect and acceptance in understanding each other.

The early diversity movement

The diversity concept has its roots in the civil rights movement and anti-discrimination movement, which spread in the USA in the 1950s and 1960s. Respect for difference was supposed to anchor social initiatives and measures in the fight against discrimination. Therefore, the principle of “affirmative action” was introduced in the 1960s. It refers to the positive discrimination of individuals who are not part of a dominant (social) group offering them better access to education and work.
This early diversity movement with its strong anti-discrimination efforts differs significantly from more recent diversity strategies. Instead of emphasizing the politically motivated aspect of equality, the economic value of diversity strategies was put into the foreground.
Thus, “affirmative action” was replaced by “affirmative diversity.” This change certainly also stemmed from allegations of “reverse discrimination” brought forward above all by white men who felt discriminated against by affirmative action programs. An economically justified diversity strategy or diversity management concept is easier to promote among dominant social groups than equality policies on the basis of legal regulations.
The current handling of diversity in Europe is strongly connected to particular national memory cultures. European societies almost unanimously follow the paradigm of “deficit-oriented approaches.” These approaches, which stress the deficits of minorities, stem from a traditional ethnocentric point of view. Difficulties of a change in perspective towards recognition and valuation are therefore not surprising. Nowadays, the rhetoric of appreciation of diversity is – to a growing extent – a central feature of the corporate identity of many institutions.
In Germany, the concept of diversity or rather diversity management was increasingly adopted in corporate practice. It was imported via subsidiaries of American companies.
In addition, European anti-discrimination and equality legislation played an important role in promoting diversity strategies. But the question remains:
- What can equality legislation achieve if the legal options to counter discrimination are not well known in society?
- The implementation of anti-discrimination legislation in connection with diversity programs still encounters strong resistance.
It is confronted with a series of defensive battles defending certain resources, privileges, and claims but also with the desire to preserve and defend traditional ways of thinking within one's own generation, gender or social group. What does diversity mean for different socio-political fields of action as well as for organizations and businesses of the non-profit and profit-sector?

Contradictions and critical questions

In practice, diversity has been viewed as a contradictory concept, because it is
on the one hand, a concept used to describe plurality and on the other hand an organizational development strategy; furthermore, it is a concept for profit-maximization but then also a concept aiming at equal treatment and the improvement of access to opportunities.
In light of this, we have to ask crucial questions on the implementation of diversity strategies in a two-fold direction:
- Is the utilization of human resources targeted by the diversity approach compatible with anti-discrimination goals?
- How can this contradiction between the economic agenda and the agenda stressing social equality be solved with regards to diversity? Is it true, that in profit-oriented companies, for example, diversity is exclusively regarded as a production factor and not as an emancipatory opportunity. How can both objectives be reconciled in different fields of actions?
In order to suggest possible answers to these questions, a review of the chances and limits of the concept of diversity may open new perspectives.

Where can the strenghts and chances of diversity approach be identified?
Diversity programs promote the creation of equal access opportunities to social positions. Therefore, diversity plays an important role in education for schools and universities, in the health sector, in social work and cultural policy – in other words: diversity is an important factor in the whole range of services provided by the government and the non-profit sector. In these areas – as we will discuss tomorrow – diversity has so far been understood and implemented to very different degrees.
The strengths of the concept clearly lie in the development of new perspectives of equal opportunities. Obvious strong points of diversity are:
- The disregard towards ethnic distinctions by placing a focus on the plurality of differential lines. Diversity therefore means a counter-discourse to the “ghettoization of minorities.” The concept helps to overcome a sectorally practiced recognition of differences and their constructedness (Allemann-Ghionda/Buckow, 2011).
- The concept offers a new point of view: It is not minorities who have deficits and are in need for reform; instead, in view of the diverse composition of contemporary society, the social space has to be creatively reshaped. Especially the concept of integration stands in contradiction with the essential idea of diversity. Integration emphasizes the “German norm.” “Integration means in this sense, to bring ‚problem children’ to the same level through the adoption of special measures at a certain time for example when starting school.”(Terkessidis, 2011) The focus of diversity is not to improve the “others” but to shape the organizational form with regard to social diversity. It implies stronger emphasis on resources instead of focusing on deficits of minorities, their potentials are valued:
1. Diversity programs do not only address explicit discrimination but also invisible structural access barriers, this applies for example to recruitment methods. Change in the sense of diversity is also an attack on the privileges of a majority in an organization.
2. Diversity as a comprehensive strategy is attractive for the management of organizations (municipal policy institutions or welfare associations, for instance) because it promises to overcome the coexistence of equal opportunity policies and intercultural opening against fragmented departmental policy.

Limits and dangers

The critical question is whether diversity approaches neglect socio-economic backgrounds and leave existing power relations untouched. Provocatively said: Is diversity synonymous with individualization? The limits of the concept are addressed in the following hypotheses:
There is the danger that
1. the approaches stemming from diversity approaches and aiming at new concepts of diversity end up merely as a flowery phrase and have only a marketing effect due to their theoretical vagueness and lack of definition.
2. diversity is used as an umbrella term for a conglomeration of measures, for example support of international exchange programs for employees and intercultural trainings, demand of employee benefits and child care services, support offers for migrants (interpreters, language courses), work-life-balance initiatives, company agreements on “partnership in the workplace” and “anti-discrimination” etc.
3. existing differences are negated and completely leveled out: In some diversity concepts attention is supposed to be given to all kinds of differences so that their analytical utility value and added value and their practical orientation function for the educational practice tend towards zero.
4. a depolitization takes place. For example, class-specific discrimination experiences of different minorities are understated and class-specific differences are neglected. At the same time, there is the threat of leveling out and depoliticizing specific profiles and motion-political strategies.
5. Diversity is applied only selectively and only allows the degree of diversity in human resource planning that is compliant with organizational goals which means that diversity can be misused in order to create a homogenizing organizational culture. These challenges for the conception and implementation of diversity programs and policies leads us to the crucial question on empirical research.

Empirical evidence - more open questions than answers

In Europe, there is still little empirical research on the implementation of diversity concepts. These empirical deficits concern, for instance, the following questions:
- Are heterogeneous groups more creative and more productive than homogeneous ones? There is empirical evidence that heterogeneous teams are more innovative than homogeneous ones. On the other hand, it is argued that arising costs of conflicts in multicultural teams are ignored.
- How can implications of diversity programs be measured? Effects of diversity measures are difficult to measure as their effects are long-term and result from multiple factors. The direct relation between adopted measures and their contribution to success is difficult to determine and the most important effects lie in the avoidance of costs which arise when certain measures are not adopted (opportunity costs). Diversity management measures typically have a long-term perspective: Whoever initiates a mentoring-program for employees of foreign descent for example, will, firstly, only be able to prove its effects after a couple of years. Secondly, it will be difficult to measure the specific contribution of this very program because there are many different factors which could contribute to a possible hiring of managers of foreign descent.
-  Which instruments does efficient diversity management need? For example: What do diversity trainings have to look like? Is it better not to adopt diversity management strategies if there is no comprehensive strategy but only sporadic and fragmented measures? Either you do it right or you don't do it at all? In the USA, the experience has been that short and sporadic diversity trainings had counter-productive effects because awareness is raised for the problem lying at the basis of diversity but no concrete solutions are offered. Therefore, a diversity training only raises the awareness and strengthens the perception of discrimination.
To sum up, successful diversity programs and measures depend on the political will to implement diversity management which combines both top-down and bottom up approaches.


Allemann-Ghionda, C. (2012): Bildung für alle, Diversität und Inklusion: Internationale Perspektiven, Paderborn: UTB.

Cox, T. (2001): Creating the multicultural organization, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Kleinau, E./Rendtorff, B. (2013): Differenz, Diversität und Heterogenität in erziehungswissenschaftlichen Diskursen, Berlin: Springer.

Suedekum, J. (2009): Cultural diversity and local labour markets, Bonn: IZA.

Vedder, G.(ed.) (2011): Fallstudien zu Diversity-Management, München: Mering/Hampp.

Anne von Oswald/Andrea Schmelz: Network Migration in Europe, 2013