I’ve often had a chance to reflect on the lack of diversity around me, not least during eight years as MP for Bethnal Green and Bow, sitting in Parliament surrounded by mostly white, middle-class men. But it was in a remote African village that I realised how ‘different’ I was. I arrived with a dozen MPs, and greeted the reception party. The chiefs and their entourage shook hands until they came to me – they assumed I was a strange type of Sherpa and handed me luggage to carry.

Whether you’re an African chief, a captain of industry, or Jamal Bloggs, it’s easy to typecast people. We make assumptions – especially in the workplace – about who is the ‘right type of person’ for the job. As a result many groups are under-represented or excluded.

As Channel 4’s head of diversity, increasing the representation of people from all backgrounds both on-screen and off-screen is part of my job. The need for greater diversity in the media is as urgent as it is in the professions, Parliament and the public sector. We’re further adrift than most people realise, and it’s easier said than done. For example, in the ‘real world’, just over half of British people are women. But in ‘TV world’, only a third of TV people (fictional characters, newsreaders, chat show hosts etc.) are women, and they are disproportionately under 30 and pretty. Disabled people and gay people fare even worse.

But businesses are realising that a diverse workforce can help recruit and retain the range of talent they need. It can help boost staff satisfaction and productivity and mitigate the risk – and significant cost – of legal action.

The demographics are compelling too. By 2025, nearly half the population will be over 50. Organisations that don’t make their jobs more attractive to older workers – and extend work beyond the default retirement age to those who want to continue – will potentially miss a huge talent pool.

Then there’s the younger workforce. Generation Y, we’re told, want different things from their employers: flexible work, a good work/life balance, and working for something they believe in. In fact each of those positives attracted me to Channel 4, which makes me think that Generation Y might just articulate what most employees want.

And what of employers? Even during a recession, when everyone is careful who they hire, it’s talent, skills and the flexibility to cope with changing circumstances that employers say they most need. The economic situation shouldn’t be seen as an excuse to push diversity onto the backburner. Instead it’s a call to action.

Certainly, at Channel 4, diversity goes to the heart of our business. When we win Oscars for films like Slumdog Millionaire and Last King of Scotland, it comes as no surprise that our most strikingly original projects have diversity at their core. For us, diversity equals business success.

I hope other employers increasingly get this message – because if they don’t, they may fall foul of a new Equality law. The Equality Act brings all of Britain’s equality legislation into one place. It places a new duty on the public sector not only to take account of race, disability and gender, but to also consider areas such as age, sexual orientation, religion or belief, and gender reassignment.

Reading this could set even the most proactive employer’s heart a-flutter. Luckily, there are lots of tools to help employers deal with their new responsibilities. Yesterday, I was part of a panel at the NHS Employers equality and diversity conference in London, and the subject under discussion was how to put the rhetoric of equality and diversity into practice.

Barts and the London NHS Trust, which covers my former electorate, serves a population of two million in what is apparently Europe’s most diverse community. It seems obvious that the closer the workforce reflects the community it serves, the better patient care will be. And this principle extends to any business or profession, such as policing, teaching, banking, or journalism, to name a few.

It’s clear that we need leaders – and there were some excellent examples yesterday of diverse and inspiring leaders in the room. But what really came across is that ALL leaders, no matter what their backgrounds, need to understand the importance of diversity and drive it throughout their organisations. Beyond the employment market, we need to tackle inequality in so many other areas: schools, housing, health provision, political representation, and social mobility. And, if we’re going to be ready for the very near future, we need to start now.

Published in The Times