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Diversity? Humbug!

Women and Mountain

The good news: Britain’s top 100 companies have made huge progress on gender diversity by doubling the number of female directors on their boards since 2011. According to the recent Davies Review, 26% of FTSE 100 board members are now women, meeting the voluntary 25% gender diversity target set by the government.

The bad news? The only way for this progress to evolve into a sustainable shift towards male / female equilibrium on UK Boards over the next 30 years is for firms to attract and nurture a pipeline of quality female candidates that will grow into future senior managers and board members. Not rocket science, I agree. However, the jump from theory to reality is a daunting and perilous journey for many firms.

Firstly, it’s important to address one point; it is quite possible that firms will achieve their 30% targets by simply finding the best female talent they can and appointing it to the board. The qualification here is that it’s the best female talent available, not necessarily the best all round talent available. Our best female leaders are the most vocal on this point; board members must be appointed on merit, not because they are female (or male, for that matter). If we arrive at the situation, in 10 years’ time, that the weakest members of boards are generally perceived as the female members then, eventually, a sceptical business community will allow the great diversity conversation to wither to a whisper.

What to do then? Many firms in financial services, for example, have made great efforts to attract an equal or larger number of female candidates into their graduate schemes. Simple theory here (again not, rocket science; please bear with me) is that if you put more 21/22 year olds females into the bank, you will eventually have more 50 year olds (hmmm – do they have to wait to aged 50?) available to join the board. This is the long game and will, without doubt, have some positive effect on the talent female pool in 30 years’ time. However, investment banks in particular still have huge challenges in attracting (and keeping) female talent to their Analyst programmes mainly due to the perception, and reality, of the investment banking culture (often seen as a macho, long hours, culture) that still persists. There are a few theories about why female graduates are not attracted to a long hours culture; personally I’m sure it is not an aversion to hard work, but because they recognise that the rewards for working 18 hour days are not equitable any more, and whereas many young males still see the, sometimes macho, investment banking culture as an ‘exclusive club’; the harder it is, the more they want to be part of it, without sitting down to work out that they are actually being paid not far off the minimum wage for the 18 hours a day, 7 days a week they are in the office.

But, and it’s a big but, what do we do between now and 25/30 years’ time? We can pinch top female talent from our competitors but, unfortunately, this is a vicious circle as, eventually, our competitors will target us back and pinch our top female talent and we’ll be back to square one, so, whilst it is a vital part of the strategy, it can’t be our only strategy.

So, I here you say, you have told us lots of things we knew already, what is the solution to attracting and retaining enough female talent to give us this talent pool to get to male/female board equilibrium before 2046?

Food for thought:

  • Maternity – like it or not this remains the biggest ‘speed bump’ in a female’s career; firms need to be prepared to financially incentivise a family to enable the mother to return to work quicker than the 6 months to 12 months maternity typically takes. Barring any further changes to the law this may mean replacing the Father’s lost income (from another firm) if the family decides he will take up childcare duties (say after 3 months).
  • Flexibility – for many women having a wide degree of flexibility in terms of how, when and where they work is No 1 on their list of factors in accepting a new role or returning from maternity leave. One of the benefits of today’s technological advances is that employees can truly work remotely or ‘on the move’ as effectively as being 9 to 5 in an office; the key here is to offer this flexibility to all employees, female and male. This gets buy in across the board and avoids the stigma and resentment of ‘special treatment’ that many mothers returning to work endure.
  • Transferable skills – firms need to be more open minded as to where their leaders and future leaders come from. A number of ‘diversity focused’ recruitment projects I am aware of have failed in the last few years because, when push comes to shove, line managers will only hire candidates with exactly the right industry experience (hence the ‘Diversity:Humbug!’ strapline). As uncomfortable as it will be, there must be a percentage of hires that are cross industry. If you need a coverage banker to cover the retail sector, why not look at a senior female candidate within the retail sector that wants to make the move to banking? Say Burberry to Barclays. Radical, yes, but with a planned transition including training in the finer points of corporate/investment banking, why not? We already do this at board level, why not lower down the corporate ladder?
  • Put a young person on the board – we want male/female diversity on our boards because it has proven that a diverse board makes better decisions. Would not a board with a better balance of age diversity make better decisions too? Again, radical, but what they lack in experience they could make up for in insight / understanding of today’s ultra-fast evolving fin-tech influenced market. In a recent interview, Nicola Horlick, CEO of crowd-funder Money & Co, said: “Diversity in its widest sense is really important…..if I were to hire everybody in my own image then the business would fail”. Of course, the ‘young person’ doesn’t have to be female, but the pool of talented female 27 year olds is always going to be larger than 50 year olds. We must not forget that Mhairi Black was elected to the Houses of Parliament (the UK’s Board, some would say) aged 20, and she is definitely not out of her depth amongst the 40/50/60 year olds she sits with.

The above are simply food for thought and, I’m sure, many of you can come up with numerous pitfalls as to why they won’t work; historically we have been very good at that.

The bottom line is, if we don’t think outside the box I believe we are doomed to fail.

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