“Moving towards board diversity”, not “Giving into political correctness”

I have been mulling over this blog for a couple of weeks now, and I would be interested to hear what people think. It stems from an experience I had at a recent conference, where I attended a session about which I shall be deliberately vague: I don’t want to appear to be ‘naming and shaming’, but instead would rather have space to explore the issues which emerged, and reflect upon what happened and its wider significance.

The conference session was in the form of a panel of around 8 participants from the same company, and the first curious aspect about the contributors were that they were all men. Perhaps this might not have mattered in some contexts, but this session was about global economic perspectives, and it seemed rather odd not to have at least a female voice, as the female economic experience in many settings globally can be starkly different from the male. Digging deeper, a quick online search revealed that the Board of the company represented were almost all men, with a single female voice whose background and role description seemed to suggest that she was secretary to the Board rather than an integral part of it (I fully accept that I may be entirely wrong on this point; nonetheless, there was certainly only one actual woman on their Board).

As the moment for questions arrived, I realised that I was not the only person to feel a sense of discomfort at an emerging picture of lack of diversity. Before even the managing director had asked for questions from the floor, a host of female hands shot up, and the first to speak noted carefully and with emphasis that she was the first woman to be heard that day. This prompted a range of rebuttals from the panel – there were of course female Heads of Section, and it was just chance that they weren’t there. In fact, what a surprise it was to everyone on the panel that there weren’t any women there – they hadn’t really noticed. And they all knew women, of course, who were very good chaps really (I may be using a little artistic licence in that last statement, but it nonetheless communicates accurately the rather unfortunate, although obviously well-meaning, sentiment that was exhibited).

What really took me aback, however, was a conversation I had with the Chairman of the Board immediately after the session. I approached him to say that I was sure that he felt that diversity was really important, and that I knew a charity that could help him (Changing the Chemistry, that is, for readers who don’t know all my affiliations; I also talked about Women on Boards). His response was quite blunt: he did not believe in “giving into political correctness” and wasn’t interested in being “pushed into appointing women for the sake of it”.

Our conversation took place rather comically, now that I reflect on it. I am 1m 60 tall on a (very) good day; he was closer to 2m and was also still perched on the stage while I stood on the floor, which meant that he towered over me and has to reach down to take the cards I proffered. An onlooker could read all sorts of symbolism into the tableau, I am sure. At the time, however, I was more struck and unsettled by his antagonism, although I smiled cheerfully and departed, leaving him, I hoped, with as positive impression as possible of the words ‘diversity’ and ‘help’.

As I reflected further and discussed this conversation with other attendees, my sense of unease grew. Maybe, I thought, I had phrased my introduction badly, so as to elicit a bad-tempered response, but when I ran it over again in my head, I didn’t think I had. I certainly didn’t mean to be aggressive in any way – on the contrary. When I thought further about it, what really made me uneasy was the lack of openness to gender diversity and potentially therefore to diversity in its wider sense – ethnic, geographical etc, and, most importantly perhaps, diversity of thought. It was the sense that a growing social awareness of, and focus on, diversity in companies and on boards was an annoyance, an irritation, a distraction from the successful work of successful organisations, who have worked out how to operate in long-established and – so far – relatively successful ways. And it was the realisation that unless powerful leaders of companies open their minds to what diversity could bring to their business, nothing will change, or will change only very slowly.

We know that diversity on boards pays off – as Lord Davies put it in the introduction to his report on Women on Boards in 2011, boards perform better “when they include the best people who come from a range of perspectives and backgrounds”. Fundamentally, in fact, it is a question of how we believe we should treat other human beings in our world. If we subscribe to the core values of respect for others, of equality, of acceptance of difference, and an acknowledgement that truth may lie in how others view the world, then we have to recognise too the immense value in drawing on the voices of others as we engage in all our activities. After all, we can’t know what we don’t know – and arguably the only way to develop our knowledge (and our wisdom) is to turn to more diverse perspectives, and to learn to listen to them without prejudice.

So – what more do we need to do to in order to provoke a positive rather than a defensive reaction to an suggestion to help increase diversity? Who do we need to act as advocates for diversity? What do we need to do to sustain the amazing efforts already underway in the UK and further afield to spread an understanding of the tremendous value of diversity of thought?

And why is it important that we address and seek to answer these questions? Because one thing I learned at that conference was that we really have a lot still to do to ensure that diversity is welcomed – indeed, actively sought out – in some of our leading business spheres. And while there are people at the top who still dismiss diversity as mere “political correctness”, we can’t keep relying on blind hope that it will change.


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