Some 150 experts from the field of diversity and representatives of business, public institutions, the media and NGOs from around the EU met in Luxembourg, 28 October 2015, to take part in the 6th EU Diversity Charters Annual Forum. Co-organised by the Luxembourg Presidency of the Council of the EU, the European Commission and the Diversity Charter Lëtzebuerg, the event, comprising various round tables and workshops, focused on the role played by the public sector and the media in this area.
The Diversity Charters are voluntary national initiatives within the EU which aim to encourage businesses to develop a diversity policy and equal opportunities in the workplace, regardless of race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender, age, disability or religion. Since 2004, 15 Member States have established their own national charter (Luxembourg in 2012) and nearly 9,000 companies have signed up, including commercial businesses, public bodies and NGOs.
Against this backdrop, the Commission introduced a platform for exchanges at EU level in 2010. By organising regular meetings and high-level events, it aims to enable actors to share their experience, develop common tools and increase awareness among principal policy deciders.
Diversity is synonymous with economic added-value
During the introductory meeting, the Minister for Family Affairs and Integration, Corinne Cahen, said that diversity was "lived on a daily basis" in Luxembourg, with just under half the country's population made up of foreigners, and 170,000 people crossing the border to come to work every day.
Within this context, the Minister welcomed the involvement of the signatories to the EU charters. "An effort must really be made, particularly in the area of recruitment, to encourage people to accept changes" and they should "not be afraid of doing so", she said. All the companies which have taken this step have gained added-value, particularly in an economic sense, "which is a key factor for companies". They must therefore "be encouraged to open up to diversity".
As a former journalist, Corinne Cahen also insisted on the "primary" role of the media in promoting diversity in a bid to "normalise" differences and "move away from the norm".
Salla Saastamoinen, Director for Equality at the European Commission, referred to the media as "strategic allies" dedicated to combating these trends and encouraging tolerance and diversity. According to her, public authorities can also lend their political support and play the role of "models" within this context.
The public sector and diversity
Regarding the public sector's role in encouraging diversity, and more directly within the context of diversity charters, debates have highlighted differences between Member States.
For instance, certain projects have been launched in the private sector with a lack of involvement on the part of the public sector, as in Austria. However, in other countries, such as France, Belgium and the Netherlands, public institutions have provided financial support and policy guidelines from the outset. Another difference is the involvement of trade unions, which are not represented in France; while in Belgium, the principal characteristic of the system is support for employers and trade unions. Moreover, the charter is currently the subject of negotiations between social partners with a view to updating it.
Despite these differences, the involvement of public services is of primary importance, and such a commitment entails above all a territorial dynamic, an improvement in the quality of services and even public awareness of diversity issues.
As a service provider, the public sector must go further to offer an adapted service range to its clients, who are very diverse and may have certain disabilities, said Vivienne Kavanagh, Head of the Dublin Bus Service in the Republic of Ireland. The latest fleet of vehicles was obtained specifically to meet these challenges, in terms of accessibility and providing information (sounds and visually).
The issue of worker diversity in public services is also important, said Juta Saarevet, Director of Social Security in Estonia, when it comes to understanding and "speaking the language" of users. And this diversity of personnel can also have economic advantages while the recruitment of people from different origins can open doors, especially to markets that until now have remained closed, said Steen Møller, Deputy Mayor of the Danish city of Odense.
Finally, it is also about working on the issue of visibility of diversity and raising awareness of the topic. Public authorities, particularly local authorities, can have an big impact in this area as large employers and purchasers of services, since they can impose terms of diversity in their conditions with those they hire.
Media and diversity
The role of the media as a multiplier and promoter of diversity in the workplace has also been the subject of debate during the conference. In this regard, discussions have led to an awareness that, despite a relatively positive public perception of the representation of diversity in the media, this is barely reflected in reality.
According to the latest Eurobarometer on discrimination within the EU in 2015, released on 22 October, 50 % of people questioned in the EU consider that diversity in terms of disability is well represented in the media. However, Martine Simonis, Secretary General of the Association of Professional Journalists in Belgium, did not agree with this impression. Based on different studies, and in particular content analyses of audiovisual and written press, the chance of seeing or hearing a person with a disability is 0.16 %, she revealed, speaking of an "invisible minority" and of a "media non-topic".
The Eurobarometer further shows, in terms of older workers, 50 % of those questioned perceive good media representation, and in terms of male-female equality, this perception rises to 70 %. "Unfortunately, all the international studies show that women are underrepresented in the media, and certain categories among them, such as older women, disappear from the screens altogether", added Martine Simonis. In the daily press, women are represented in less than 18 % of media stories, and their treatment is often different, she also noted.
In terms of the involvement of the media with regard to different national charters, Aletta von Hardenberg, in charge of the German charter, specifically points out that sometimes it was a struggle for them to be involved, but they did have an important role to play. In this regard, the charter may rightly be used to raise awareness among the media on this topic, not only in terms of content but also in their recruitment policies,she added.
This opinion was not shared by Polish radio journalist Paweł Oksanowicz, according to whom the media are ahead of commercial businesses where information is a product. According to him, it is about convincing these businesses that diversity is positive in terms of the variety of information, and that it can give a commercial advantage.
For his part, Yazsr Mirza, an independent journalist, and former head of diversity at the British newspaper The Guardian, said that diversity in the media had "a very important impact on content". According to him, it is about a means of ensuring pluralism, which is just one of the missions for journalists. "We shouldn't need to speak about diversity in the media, but simply about good reporting", he said.
Martine Simonis noted in this regard that, in Belgium, most journalists were white males with an average age of 45, and that the trend was to go to people like them, that is to say "an outside approach towards white experts". "It is difficult to approach unknown environments; more diversity would perhaps facilitate their access and allow the development of more different media angles and better address books," she said, and a wider choice of subjects. The issue also arises of training journalists who should be given the tools to see things from perspectives different from their own.
Finally, the issue of comment management on information websites was also raised, as hate speech "gets everywhere" and comment spaces, according to the topics, often turn into "an overspill for hate and racism", according to Martine Simonis. Within this context, as many media sources have opted to shut down these spaces, the answers for the media are not straightforward, but one of the best solutions would be for journalists to respond to these messages.