The advocates of diversity in the workplace can lay claim to one very substantial achievement: they have made the complicated issues of difference and exclusion into subjects that senior figures in business, government and public sector feel comfortable talking about, and sometimes even addressing. That was never destined to happen to poor old equality. It is thus common enough to hear business leaders extolling 'the business case' for diversity.
Organisations prepared to allow diversity to thrive can expect more creative thinking, new customer segments, better staff motivation, and a perception of greater social legitimacy, or so the theory goes. Diversity supplements the moral imperative of equality with the imperative of rational self-interest. And by doing so, it appears to win more converts in the business world.
Yet the idea that there is a well-established 'business case' for diversity involves an extravagant sleight of hand which has tended to go unchallenged - even by the notionally savage and fearless national press. Why? Because everybody would very much like it to be true that being fair confers benefits - that justice is not solely its own reward. Such is the strength of feeling on this that even raising doubts about it will bring people to question the doubter's motivation. To which the only response is that selectivity with the research, however awkward it may be, degrades the debate, and assumes that managers and businesspeople are basically simpletons.
So what does the research actually say? It says that diversity is complicated, the research is limited, and that what there is points to no clear conclusion.
There are, of course, impressive studies which give diversity the big tick. In speeches to business audiences, Trevor Phillips, chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality, habitually refers to a report from the European Commission, published in November 2003, which looked at the costs and benefits of diversity initiatives among 200 companies. The report found that diversity broadened management capacity, improved innovation, widened access to talent, and reduced staff turnover - as well as the more questionable advantage of "avoided litigation costs". The British government and bodies such as the London Human Resource Group have also produced thoughtful testimony on corporate diversity's behalf.
The trouble for the business case starts occurring when the field of study is widened to look at the ov