The boss of a top Northern Ireland IT company has said that schools need to show the same commitment to equality as businesses do.
Joanne Stuart, a trustee of the Integrated Education Fund (IEF) and a former chair of the Institute of Directors, was speaking at a breakfast held by the IEF in conjunction with the CBI and the Belfast Telegraph.
Ms Stuart said that the workplace or third level education is usually the first opportunity for many young people to engage with someone from a different background.
She added that today's job market is very different from previous years, meaning that young people have to be confident to broaden their horizons and work outside their own communities.
"Running a business, employers not only have to make sure that everyone is treated equally in terms of conditions, pay and opportunity, but must also prove that the working environment is open and welcoming to everyone, no matter their background, creed or colour," she said.
"But there is a dichotomy when the workplace must comply with this legislation, yet we continue to fund schools from the public purse without any demand they are actively open in their ethos.
"Whilst every education sector will tell you that they welcome all cultures and traditions, the reality is that 93% of pupils at maintained schools are from the Catholic tradition, and nearly 75% of pupils in controlled schools designate themselves Protestant.
"Schools need to take further steps to make their environment one where everyone can be open about their background and learn to accept and be comfortable with difference. We have had a stark reminder of the challenges we face when it comes to respecting and understanding our differences and the devastating economic impact it can have," she added.
"Estimates calculate the cost to our local economy of the recent civil unrest at £8m and at least 300 jobs lost and this doesn't include the lost inward investment projects and delayed investments by businesses already located in Northern Ireland.
"When Sir Mervyn King, outgoing Governor of the Bank of England, addressed business leaders at the recent CBI dinner in Belfast, he stated the importance of the business community 'as the agent of change and reconciliation', an insightful observation and one we should not and cannot ignore."