Article 3

2022-10-09 Zenia Simonella

When the Context Changes

In a general context that is closed or hostile to the theme of diversity and inclusion, organizations could face an uphill climb, and it could become treacherous and counterproductive to point out progress in this field, especially if the organizations operate locally. At the same time, the history of diversity management reminds us that there have been organizations that have given benefits and opportunities to their employees, going beyond the context in which they operated. The most virtuous organizations could thus use their freedom of action to construct an open and inclusive work environment, at least internally, stemming the possible tensions deriving from the general context.


At the end of September, a demonstration was held in various Italian cities organized by the “Non una di meno” association in defense of Law 194 (“For free, safe and no-cost abortion,” said one of the slogans[1]), and for women’s freedom more in general. The demonstration stressed a widespread worry in part of civil society that emerged at the time of the elections that have made Giorgia Meloni the likely prime minister: the fear is that there will be a constriction of civil rights and a change in attitude (at the country level) towards women, the LGBTIQ+ community, migrants, and other minorities.  

What can happen when the general context in which organizations operate changes? The context can influence the degree of openness and the climate for inclusion in organizations and can favor or inhibit the adoption of policies and practices oriented toward diversity. When the climate becomes (more) hostile, even following changes in the context (not necessarily through a change in legislation), tensions, conflicts and forms of (micro)aggression can arise or intensify. At the same time, it could become more demanding to launch or continue a process on themes of inclusion; in fact, a process of this type could be in conflict with the political-social context and it could become treacherous and counterproductive for the company to point out progress in this field as an identitarian and reputational value. This could regard above all those organizations that have an identity and leadership more rooted in the territory and culture of our country.

The history of diversity management reminds us that, even in the presence of an ambiguous or unfavorable context, there have been organizations that, due to their business vision, on the part of single individuals or because of a favorable orientation from headquarters in other countries, have given benefits and opportunities to their employees, going beyond the context in which they operated, and in certain cases anticipating or favoring the adoption of certain laws. Examples are the (broader) coverage of salary for mandatory maternity leave, flexible hours and construction of smart working policies ante litteram, and the recognition of equal rights for homosexual couples even in the absence of specific laws on the subject.

A pro-active approach by businesses in the social field has its origin in the concept of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), born in the United States in the 1940s as an act by businesses[2] that, to avoid the “red tape” of a potentially invasive state, began to define their range of action in social terms. Corporate Social Responsibility became an assumption of pro-active and voluntary responsibility to affirm freedom of action, seeking to avoid the drift toward socialism deriving from state intervention into the market. Over time, CSR has been interpreted as a lever for business that could generate benefits for society as a whole, but as stated by the precursors in this field,[3] the results reached in social and environmental terms have been questionable (because they are ineffective or superficial). Today there is a formalization of the issue in the form of ESG,[4] that is forcing companies to adopt more sustainable behavior, with all of the advantages and problems inherent in the adoption of complex monitoring tools (bureaucratization, formalization, etc.). However, even in the field of ESG a serious reflection on the issue of “diversity and inclusion” is yet to come.

Therefore, in a context that can potentially shift against persons who historically have been excluded and have faced difficulties in gaining certain rights, and in which the theme of “diversity and inclusion” still draws little attention at the national level,[5]the “road to inclusion” could still be uphill climb. The commitment would remain on the part of organizations that, individually, would continue to construct (or decide to start the work for the construction of) an inclusive work environment, seeking to stem the possible tensions deriving from a changing context. Perhaps it is insufficient, but it would in any event be an important sign.

[2] See L. Morri, Storia e teorie della responsabilità sociale d’impresa. Un profilo interpretativo, Milan, FrancoAngeli, 2009.

[3] Si vedano le riflessioni di F. Perretti, “Le imprese (ir)responsabili”, Economia&Management, 1-2021.

[4] See, for example, F. Perrini, A. Iantosca, “I rating ESG: amarli o odiarli?”, Economia&Management, 1-2021.