Listening to Jayne-Anne Ghadia last week was a refreshing experience. Ms Ghadia – CEO of Virgin Money and author of the 2016 Ghadia report into women and finance, ‘Empowering Productivity: Harnessing the Talents of Women in Financial Services’ – was speaking at an event in Edinburgh aimed at demonstrating to private sector companies why board diversity makes economic sense; this was a message supported by the First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, who also addressed the assembled company – and it was a pleasure to reinforce this myself when I presented at a session later in the morning in my capacity as a Trustee of Changing the Chemistry, alongside our esteemed CEO. The message of the morning was clear – diversity makes fundamental sense, and as Ms Ghadia said, quite straightforwardly, ‘Diversity is about success for men and women. It’s obvious.’
The thing about diversity on boards – or on any decision-making group, committee or body – is that once you have seen how it makes a difference to have a range of voices around the table, there is no going back. In fact, once you have experienced the breadth of often unexpected perspectives that come from people with different backgrounds, skills, life experiences and world views, you will find it hard to accept the group-think that often masquerades as thoughtful decision-making amongst people tasked with such responsibilities. Most of us think that we are broad-minded enough and sufficiently capable of careful reflection to be able to see issues from all angles, but the truth is that we aren’t, and we should stop assuming that we are. Each of us brings our own unique understandings of the world to the groups in which we are involved – each of us brings our own diverse part – but we can only ever be a part of a much bigger picture, and the sooner we embrace this, the better. All the emerging evidence now points to the fact that diverse companies with diverse boards perform more effectively, and if the social argument of the importance of representing your customer base doesn’t win you over (and it should), then maybe the hard financial success facts will.
Achieving diversity on a board requires thought, commitment and action. As in so many areas of our still unequal world, people with much to offer do not realise just what they can bring, often because it has never been expected of them and they can’t see enough role models, and also because innumerable hurdles stand in their way – who really wants to join a board where the culture is subtly patronising, their ideas are dismissed, and they feel uncomfortably alien? A welcoming board which embraces and respects difference is a healthy board, and while we would all like to think that this is what we do, and who we are, the reality is that without conscious and unremitting focus on the value of diversity, actively seeking out and supporting diversity, and a deep, constant challenging of our own unconscious bias, our boards will not be the diverse – and effective – places we want them to be.
So – there is work to be done, but it is eminently do-able, and the longer we wait, the longer it will take to achieve. Join with others and just do it.