Diversity in the workplace: How the ‘D’ word stops progress.

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Diversity has become dangerously divisive. In fact, it has always been an issue that provokes a wide range of reactions, from genuine enthusiasm (usually among the under-represented) to winking or open hostility (I was once accused of “ruining British companies” through my attempts to improve gender diversity on company boards).

But for much of the last decade, scepticism seemed to fade as support grew. The global financial crisis made the case for diversity stronger – and more painful – than any theory. It was all too obvious that corporate boards, management teams and policy-making bodies composed of similar individuals were inherently flawed – especially when these similarities were based on gender, race, age, education and social circles. This was a moment to be seized – and so in 2010 the 30% club was created to encourage the chairpersons (99 of the FTSE 100 chairpersons were men) to work towards a better gender balance on the boards.

In the following years, not only has the representation of women on FTSE 100 boards more than doubled, but the way of thinking in the UK has also changed: This was no longer an issue of special interest but everyone’s concern. The 30% club approach, in which men and women work together, has now been adopted in 10 countries and the programmes cover the entire career path, from classroom to boardroom.

But we are now at a crossroads. The gender issue in particular is a well-established topic, but we have not yet mastered it. Yes, there are more women leaders and business leaders, but many women tell me that they feel discouraged about their prospects. They cannot see the connection between their own reality and the efforts to achieve gender equality, which often target a narrow group of white, privileged and highly educated women rather than all women.

I am optimistic that the next breakthrough is within reach, that the many upheavals in our world will create another, greater moment to be seized. Technology has changed the way we work, communicate and influence. Centuries-old patriarchal structures of command and control are rapidly collapsing, and instead a more democratic, more inclusive concept of power is emerging. Leaders today must be able to make connections. This is good news for people who are empathetic and cooperative – qualities of cooperation often referred to as feminine, although men can obviously show them.

Women of my generation who have made it into senior positions (and even less so ethnic minorities, homosexuals or disabled people) have had to adapt to past practices to be successful. Today we have an unprecedented opportunity to reinvent the rules, to create new ways of working, living and educating to be relevant to everyone in a digital, networked world. We no longer have to bend over, but can change the system.

But a new danger is looming. The diversity agenda has gone off the rails, and we need to get back to the basics. Diversity means being different, and integration means welcoming these differences. Somehow this has been confused with the opposite notion that valuing people as equals means suppressing our differences.

The controversy surrounding Google engineer James Damore’s “echo chamber” memo reflected inappropriate hypersensitivity; his language was clumsy and inflammatory, but his main argument that Google’s approach to diversity might be flawed because men and women often have different interests should have triggered a debate, not an outcry. I am a mother of six girls and three boys, a sample size large enough to be quite confident that both nature and education play a role. Instead of denying the obvious, we should focus on ensuring that our differences are equally valued. I don’t have to be the same as a man to be that valuable!

In a broader sense, our intentions to be inclusive have turned into bizarre, counterintuitive situations. We have tied a knot: In the UK there is a serious suggestion that the next census will not ask about gender at all, and the principal of a school for single people with the word “girl” in its name says that she avoids talking about “girls” at all. For many, these developments seem ridiculous and run the risk of making a mockery of diversity and undermining efforts to make further progress for women. And many companies report a dilemma in creating different lists of job applicants; setting targets for each dimension (socio-economic background, ethnicity, sexual orientation) feels like overdoing it, like making a pop band. We need more common sense and a more nuanced approach.

Any significant change program needs to be evaluated and adjusted from time to time. Questioning our approach to diversity does not mean questioning diversity itself. At the moment, we need to conduct an honest review – nothing should be taboo. We may even have to drop the “D” word if it is too charged. This may feel like a step backwards, but it is a necessary reset to help us make the next major breakthrough to a truly inclusive, modern society.

Dame Helena Morrissey is the founder of the 30% Club, which works to increase women’s representation on the FTSE-100 committees, and will participate in the Battle of Ideas Festival at the Barbican Centre in London on 28 October.

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