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Diversity efforts in the workplace collide with an unclear Swedish ideal

16.09.2008 - (idw) Schwedischer Forschungsrat - The Swedish Research Council

"Diversify or Die" -diversity is a concept on many people's lips. Diversity is praised as good for business and for promoting creativity. But when organizational theorist Viktorija Kalonaityte studied diversity work at a Swedish adult education school, the school wanted to make everyone as "Swedish" as possible. Companies and organizations are often urged to recruit and maintain a workforce that is demographically mixed.

"Diversity advocates often talk about what the organization should be, but not where it should be. It involves an ideal where people say 'diversity is profitable' and that it leads to creativity. But they rarely want to talk about unpleasant aspects, that diversity can also entail discrimination and conflicts," says the researcher.

"We live in a global world where the diversity that is created is based on a workforce that is well educated and takes white-collar jobs. However, large groups are socially and economically vulnerable."

In Sweden diversity is largely about integration policy and the public sector, rather than the more prevalent American big corporation perspective. Viktorija Kalonaityte recently defended her doctoral dissertation at the School of Economics, Lund University. The thesis addressed identity and diversity work at a municipal school for adults. The school she studied views itself as working actively with diversity in line with a municipal diversity plan. But organizations do not always function as planned, and Viktorija Kalonaityte looks at reasons for this that are tied to deeply rooted cultural rationalities. Her study shows that the diversity plan often collides with people's understandings of what things should be like at a Swedish workplace.

"Their interpretation of diversity deviates dramatically from the municipal plan and various notions of what diversity should mean. For example, the school wanted to assimilate instead of integrating its students of foreign backgrounds. There is a feeling that these students belong to another world and are drastically different. The school's self-image touts that it should safeguard women from honor-based cultures and helplessness. Women are regarded as passive and helpless."

On the other hand, what is meant by "Swedish" is extremely difficult to grasp.

"Sometimes it's Swedish to be active and independent. But if a student causes trouble in class, that's something other than Swedish, and the student must be seen instead as lacking an understanding of what goes on in the classroom. This makes Swedishness impossible to attain, because there are no ten clear points -the concepts are constantly shifting."

The municipal school for adults wishes to show its students "a proper Swedish workplace." At the same time, the teachers are part of the "other." Even though prayer and other religious practices are banned from the school, the teachers allow the students to go off and pray, and the teachers' staff development days are planned to coincide with student holidays. Several teachers are learning Arabic in order to understand their students better. In this way, the teachers and the routines are altered. This poses a problem in terms of the school's self-image.

"The school wishes to retain its Swedishness, but it is not able to mediate perfect Swedishness to its students. For instance, the school brought in Swedes from outside to speak more perfect Swedish than its own teachers. When they wanted to show a real Swedish workplace, they had to take the students on a field trip."

Viktorija Kalonaityte maintains that organizations that work with diversity should bear in mind that they change when they work with people. Employers cannot maintain control in the same way, because other languages are used and new ideas enter the picture. The researcher says we need to have a more open approach to diversity plans.

"Speak instead with everyone who represents diversity in the workplace and see what happens. Employers like to view themselves as good, fair, and humane. But sometimes it's better to ask people what makes them feel good and what needs they have, instead of assuming that only management knows how change should take place and that only individuals of foreign background need to change."


The dissertation is titled Off the Edge of the Map: A Study of Organizational Diversity as Identity Work and it was publicly defended last spring at the Department of Business Administration at the School of Economics, Lund University in Sweden.

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