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The diversity barrier

23 October 2017

The current focus is on women in the boardroom, with progress towards Lord Davies’ objective of 25% women directors for FTSE companies and similar targets frequently highlighted.

In 2014 we commemorate the centenary of the start of the Great War. From a social history viewpoint, World War I is often seen as a turning point in women’s lives. During the war, women filled roles previously reserved for men out of necessity and as a result the obstacles to women entering the professions started to lift. A particular milestone was the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919, which was introduced shortly afterwards to ensure that all jobs were open to women.

It must have seemed to that generation, with voting rights also being granted to some women, that equality was just around the corner. Perhaps each new cohort of aspiring women believes they will finally overcome the barriers. During my teens in the 1980s, surrounded by images of power-dressing women sporting frighteningly huge shoulder pads, I had no doubt that women could achieve anything they wanted. You just had to want it enough to grasp the opportunities. If only it were that simple.

The current focus is on women in the boardroom, with progress towards Lord Davies’ objective of 25% women directors for FTSE companies and similar targets frequently highlighted. It seems ironic to me that governments, in which female representation is often minimal, are seeking to impose these remedies on the world of business. Perhaps they might consider leadership by example as a
more effective approach. However, I am certainly not one to argue with the intention behind the diversity effort.

Undoubtedly, the number of women holding directorships in our largest companies is growing (now
more than 20% compared to 12.5% in 2011), but a recent survey shows around 4% of chairmen, chief executives and finance directors in the FTSE 100 are female, so perhaps the appearance of impressive progress is little more than a smoke screen. Although appointment of a significant number of women in FTSE 100 NED positions is a fantastic achievement, these appointments
are best compared to a few minor cracks opening up in the glass ceiling. No one is yet being deafened by the sound of it being shattered into a million tiny pieces.

A recent KPMG report provides an interesting suggestion that by speaking about their personal
motivations for improving their company’s diversity, CEOs can drive change more effectively. The business case for diversity is already accepted but using personal anecdotes can provide powerful evidence of a CEO’s commitment to the issue. Sharing personal experiences reinforces the message that the organisation’s leader is determined to make change happen, so the organisation’s management is more likely to modify their practices accordingly.

Diversity is not solely an issue of gender, but applies equally to all the facets that make us individuals. We are reminded of this in the foreword to the report by the comments of Simon Collins, UK Chairman of KPMG, who describes his own motivation as arising from ‘a passion to build a workplace where everyone can be their true selves – black, white, gay, straight, bipolar, Hindu or obsessive Chelsea fan’. I’m not sure that full acceptance of Chelsea fans might be taking things a little far (I joke) but there is no reason why the sharing of personal experiences by senior management might not also give impetus to change in relation to other diversity issues.

We have come a long way in the past hundred years but achieving true diversity at all levels of working life is not an easy nut to crack. Even Sweden, the country often lauded as the champion of true equality, is struggling with the issue. I read last year that a report had revealed that there were more directors called Johan, and as many called Anders, as there were women on the boards of
companies listed on the Swedish stock exchange. The position in the UK is perhaps not so terrible after all.

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