Embracing diversity will help Northern Ireland grow and prosper

Nuala Murphy our Director at Diversity Mark shares an opinion piece with the Belfast Telegraph.

Like so many of us who call Belfast home, I was deeply moved to participate in events surrounding the commemoration of the Good Friday agreement in April.

And while reflection is good, more important for me was looking forward and thinking about the road ahead which has been the topic of discussion at many meetings and conferences I’ve attended this year: what do the next 25 years look like for Northern Ireland?

In the past few months, I’ve met with leaders of Belfast’s universities and businesses. I’ve sat across the table from Catholic priests and Protestant activists working with our city’s youth. I’ve heard from people who were born and raised in Belfast and people who immigrated here from around the world.

Leaders from all walks of life who share a common goal: a Northern Ireland, whose future not only builds upon the progress we’ve made but opens up a transformative new chapter of inclusion for all of us.

In the past, when people in Northern Ireland spoke of diversity and inclusion, they generally were speaking in terms of division relating to religious belief – and mainly of only two communities, Protestant and Catholic. That remains deeply important.

But as we move forward in 2023, Northern Ireland is evolving to recognize diversity of all kinds. We now embrace a much more multicultural outlook, and rightly so: the number of people in Northern Ireland from a minority ethnic background has more than doubled since 2001.

And today, more than 13.5% of Northern Ireland’s population were born outside the region, with 40% of that group arriving in roughly the past decade. These are vibrant and growing communities whose voices must be included as we forge the road ahead.

We still have a long way to go to make true equality a reality. Heartbreakingly, in a recent survey more than 80% of Belfast-born teenagers from ethnic minorities said they hoped to leave Belfast due to racist attitudes.

Northern Ireland is also continuing to work to address gender inequities, particularly in our businesses. Women make up half of Northern Ireland’s working age population, but for every 10 men entrepreneurs here, there are just four women entrepreneurs.

In STEM fields, women are outnumbered by men by three to one. On the bright side, Northern Ireland has the smallest gender pay gap in the UK. But disparities still exist, and a lower proportion of women enter our workforce at all compared to other regions.

As we work to build a more inclusive society for everyone, these gender gaps must be addressed and we must do more to ensure that all communities feel included and prioritised.

One in five people in Northern Ireland have a disability, but many report feeling invisible or stigmatised in their communities and at work. A first-of-its-kind census found that one in 25 adults in Belfast identify as LGBT+, but Northern Ireland reported the lowest rates in the UK and 8% of respondents declined to answer a sign, perhaps, that we could be doing more to make people feel comfortable living as their authentic selves. 

It is often reported that diversity, equity, and inclusion can help to unlock greater innovation within companies. The same is true within communities as a whole.

I’m proud of the progress Northern Ireland has made, and I know we can continue to push forward especially if we expand our ideas about diversity to include more nuance and populations. Some people still view this as a threat to traditional values or beliefs, but inclusion is not a zero sum game.

We all have a stake in these issues, and we can’t be complacent. We need to continue to explain why the issues of diversity, equality and inclusion (DEI) matter which is challenging for a number of reasons.

To convincingly demonstrate that DEI are truly business imperatives, we need to be able to demonstrate two things: one, that enhanced reputation and improved stakeholder relationships have a tangible impact on business performance; and two that these initiatives contribute to corporate reputation and brand image and have a meaningful impact on the relationship between an organization and its stakeholders.

I often tell the people I work with that when you know who you are, you aren’t afraid of differences. In fact, you can even embrace them. The anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement was a reminder of what the people of Northern Ireland can achieve when we extend a hand out to one another and work together in the name of solidarity and community.

When we see our collective fates as entwined and work to overcome our divisions. As we look towards the future, let’s continue in that spirit of reaching out to one another to include even more voices and to embrace the full breadth of our diversity with joy. 

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