Within the next month, Barack Obama, a man with a black father and white mother, could have been elected President of the USA, having narrowly beaten a woman for the Democratic nomination. On this side of the Atlantic, a few months ago an openly gay man, Brian Paddick, was the Liberal Democrat candidate in the election for Mayor of London, and a blind man, David Blunkett, continues to bestride the domestic political scene.
Given the high profiles of these representatives of minority, or historically underrepresented, groups, you might conclude that the diversity debate is over. In particular, you might think that the recruitment of graduates to the first rungs of the employment ladder takes place today with merit as the only consideration and with issues of race, sex and religion irrelevant.
Well, the evidence suggests you'd be wrong, certainly if you consider the continued success of an annual recruitment fair aimed at graduates from almost every demographic category apart from young, white, heterosexual males.
The event is called Grades. The title is an acronym, its aim being to promote graduate careers to all, irrespective of Gender, Religion, Age, Disability, Ethnicity or Sexuality. It's being held on 29 October at the East Wintergarden at Canary Wharf in London Docklands.
It's certainly more than an event where established employers pay lip service to enlightened recruitment practices. About 30 big-name organisations are exhibiting at the fair, all with vacancies to fill. The home page of the event's website (www.grades.org.uk) bears such instantly recognisable logos as those of the BBC, Norwich Union, HSBC and more top-drawer firms.
The event's organiser, Tony Olson, has run the fair for the past four years. He's been marketing it by contacting special-interest groups on university campuses, trumpeting the fact that employers with an explicit commitment to diversity in recruitment will be present. Groups targeted include ethnic minority societies, gay and lesbian clubs, and disability networks.
"There are still a lot of misconceptions about the type of people recruited by some employers," Olson says. "For example, there are certain industries – investment banking, law, business consultancy, technology – that are perceived to be male-dominated."
The business consultant Accenture, for one, clearly sees the need to demonstrate a recruitment policy that throws its net far and wide. Soraya El Ramly's job title at Accenture is UK inclusion and diversity recruitment lead, and her message to all graduates attending Grades is this: "We have an environment rich in diversity that recognises each individual's uniqueness and values his or her skills and contributions."
Other employers attending Grades have, arguably, an even bigger challenge to change perceptions. The insurance market Lloyd's, housed in its iconic Richard Rogers-designed building in the City of London, conjures up images of Home Counties men in stripy shirts for whom diversity means exploring the outer limits of the wine list at lunch.
But this picture is already changing, a fact underlined by the Lloyd's presence at this recruitment event. "One of the things we are seeking to do is dispel the myth about who the insurance market employs. It is much more diverse than the traditional men in braces," says Sean McGovern, Lloyd's director and general counsel.
The newest category among groups being courted by employers at Grades is people of advancing years. Age discrimination in employment has been unlawful in the UK since October 2006. And with more people entering higher education in their later decades, Olson argues that there is scope for employers to demonstrate that they are keen to recruit older talent. "There are more and more mature students around these days, and they want to know they are talking to a recruiter that's not just after a malleable 20-year-old," he says.
But some participants appear more diffident about why they're participating in what is clearly branded a diversity event, perhaps for fear of alienating potential recruits who choose not to be identified by any minority label.
Trailfinders, the travel agent with 24 high-street locations in the British Isles and more than 1,100 staff, prefers to stress its all-round open recruitment policy, without any reference to specific diversity objectives. "It's fairly straightforward," says staffing manager Gillian Walker. "We are trying to access as many parts of the employment market as possible and we want to get our brand out in as many areas as possible."Reuse content