They say the past is a foreign country, but even in the last few years the world of work has experienced a significant transformation in terms of what equality, diversity and inclusion means. While EDI has been on the HR and board agenda for decades, contemporary business needs and recent social changes continue to add new areas of focus. As a result, equipping staff with the necessary tools to meet these challenges is an ongoing challenge.

Mary Connaughton, director of CIPD Ireland, agrees that the scope of EDI has evolved significantly in recent years. “Now it’s recognised that it needs to be part of the company culture,” she says. “It’s about having an inclusive working culture which means everyone can feel comfortable and safe at work, and not have to deal with negative comments and jokes or laughter about the nature of who they are.”

And while different companies may be at different points on their EDI journey, Connaughton notes that most organisations now known that they need to train leadership teams and management “so that they truly understand what we mean by inclusion and equality and can implement it more effectively”.

“Sometimes that means challenging their own behaviour in terms of things they might say or do which wouldn’t role model good inclusion,” she says.

Unconscious bias is currently a hot topic in EDI and many organisations are working to combat the impact of these subconscious attitudes and social stereotypes on the success of their business model. For example, unconscious bias can significantly affect the recruitment process at a firm, Connaughton says. “Even though you are supposedly putting all the candidates through the same process and scoring them accordingly, at the same time personal biases can come in. Particularly if you have been an organisation that’s one type of profile, when bringing in more diverse people will have an impact on a team that might have worked in a very traditional way in the past,” she explains.

Another challenge for those tasked with developing the EDI strategy is the multigenerational workforce, which sees Generations X, Y and Z rub shoulders with baby boomers and beyond. While this makes for a more diverse workforce, the inclusion piece can be difficult for HR, Connaughton says.

“Certainly now we work with some organisations that have five generations working there,” she admits. “This means that people are looking for different things from their careers, from their work-life balance, from the nature of their reward packages. Companies are now getting much more in tune to this and trying to see ways they can help knit the different generations together.” A consequence of the pandemic that may last is the advent of hybrid and flexible working, and Connaughton says this in itself can encourage a more diverse range of applicants for certain roles.

Gender identity and expression in the workplace is another area that can be difficult to navigate in the workplace without the proper training. “It is about helping general managers and employees understand all the issues around sexual identity and being compassionate about it so that if there is someone in the team or the organisation who has changed gender they will feel that they will be sympathetically and appropriately dealt with, rather than feel that they would be rejected.” There are also practical realities and Connaughton notes that many businesses refurbished their offices to introduce bathrooms suitable for all genders.

Gillian Harford is country executive at the 30% Club Ireland, a business-led campaign to boost female representation at board and C-Suite level in the world’s biggest companies. She queries whether, as predicted, women really did leave the workforce in their droves during the pandemic – “there seem to be anomalies in the data” – but does agree that gender balance in the workforce is now a priority for all employers.

“What’s really, really clear is that there is hardly an employer above a certain size that isn’t talking about this topic,” Harford says. “The 30% Club started in 2015 and at that time there were only a small number of Irish employers talking about this very seriously. That has changed significantly.”

Yet she says organisations are still at different points on their journey towards gender equality and addressing the “broken rung” at the first step up to manager for women. The 30% Club has 300 members from all areas of industry and, even among these members, there are various stages of maturity, according to Harford.

“Some joined to learn, while others joined to collaborate and share. But I don’t think there is any sector left that’s not trying – that’s the progress that we have seen in the last six or seven years.”

But there is still further to go. Harford says the more mature organisations are now focusing on how they get gender balance in their senior roles of influence. “It is not enough to say 50 per cent of my organisation are female, where are they, are they being promoted, are they in the top jobs?”

The Irish food sector has become notably more diverse in recent years, says Bridie Corrigan Matthews, Network Director at Taste 4 Success Skillnet. The key findings of research into cultural diversity in the sector are that Ireland has become considerably more diverse in recent decades, and the agri-food sector particularly so, with 29 per cent of its workers (50 per cent in meat) being from outside of Ireland compared to 17 per cent for the overall workforce. Taste 4 Success Skillnet have won plaudits for their “Rejuvenate” programme; developed in conjunction with University College Cork, it is designed to help women return to the workforce after having a baby or taking time out to raise their family.

A business that has a solidly-integrated EDI strategy will ultimately futureproof its success, says Corrigan. She notes that the “Great Place to Work” register is one of the key places to look for Irish companies that have recognised and advanced EDI practices. “As we face a continuing challenging economic environment, with soaring energy and food prices due in most part to the war in Ukraine, ongoing Brexit challenges for exports and imports, and changes to work-life balance resulting from two years of changing practices, Irish companies must develop an understanding of the EDI influences on their business to plan effectively for recovery and growth.”