‘Sameness’ and ‘Difference’ Revisited: Which Way Forward For Equal Opportunity Initiatives?


Address for reprints: Sonia Liff, Industrial Relations and Organisational Behaviour Group, Warwick Business School, Warwick University, Coventry CV4 7AL.


Recent interest in ‘managing diversity’ has reopened debates about forms of equality in the workplace. Approaches to equality developed in the 1970s and 1980s have been characterized as an attempt to ensure that if individuals bring the same abilities to work, or perform in the same way, they should receive the same access to jobs and employment benefits, regardless of social group membership. Managing diversity appears to be about a more positive valuing of difference. Benefits are seen to derive from different perspectives and approaches and these should be nurtured and rewarded rather than suppressed. Feminists have long argued about the extent to which women are the same as, or different from, men, and about the political consequences of adopting these positions. Recent theoretical developments have led to some novel solutions to this dilemma. These include asserting claims to both ‘sameness’ and ‘difference’, the deconstruction of ‘difference’, and the reconstruction of ‘sameness’ on women's terms. This paper explores approaches to equal opportunities through both established and novel theoretical perspectives. It argues that existing practice cannot be fitted neatly into the conventional distinctions between ‘sameness’ and ‘difference’, and explores the potential characteristics and strengths and weaknesses of equality initiatives based on the new theoretical perspectives.