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Views of the gender gap

20 June 16

Have attitudes to gender diversity truly changed, or are there still hurdles to surmount? What is the best way forward? A debate last month hosted by the Society threw up many points to consider

by Peter Nicholson

We hear plenty these days about gender diversity and the advancement of women to senior positions. But do we need quotas to ensure progress? Is the battle being won, and if it is, can we afford to drop our guard? What countervailing societal factors are at work? These were among the questions aired at a recent inter-profession discussion hosted by the Law Society of Scotland.

The Society is part of the Professional Bodies’ Forum of Scotland, whose 12 member organisations collaborate in events of interest such as this early evening gathering. Titled “Diversity of leadership – does it matter?” and held under Chatham House rules, a panel including two prominent women solicitors prompted a range of interventions from a suitably diverse audience.

There was common ground at the outset: diversity in your top leadership increases your breadth of knowledge, reduces “groupthink”, reflects society, improves your connection with your customers, and widens your talent pool. This has added importance in our present-day knowledge economy, in which 80% of a business’s assets are likely to be people. There are even figures indicating that the average return of companies is 4% higher when women are on the board.

Quota controversy

But do we need quotas? One female panelist would have been “outraged” at the idea three or four years ago, but now believes that without some sort of benchmark or sanction, change doesn’t happen. This should combine with positive discrimination – meaning a proactive recruitment strategy aimed at attracting people from underrepresented groups. The contrary view was that diversity can be achieved in other ways, such as by signing up to the Treasury charter that links senior executive pay to delivering on gender targets.

There was certainly a wider view that incentives and sanctions are both needed. “Unless there is change at the top, you feel intimidation from the top,” was one comment from the floor – though whereas another contributor maintained that only enforced growth will deliver culture change soon enough, a further comment pointed to the rapid change now taking place in FTSE companies as showing peer pressure working.

Don’t ignore the “executive pipeline”, another advised: focusing on the board ignores the team that really sets a business’s culture.

Multi-faceted

A very recent speech at a Scottish Business Friends charity dinner by Andrew Haldane, chief economist at the Bank of England (www.bankofengland.co.uk/publications/Documents/speeches/2016/speech906.pdf) was quoted approvingly.

Describing diversity as “no one-way street, no panacea”, he identified three aspects: the identity-based (the familiar categories of gender, ethnicity, disability etc), but also the cognitive and the experiential. Cognitive embraces variations in technical and also interpersonal problem solving, including the abilities of the autistic; experiential is “multi-faceted” but includes socio-economic status and its consequences.

“The sooner we recognise that our minds are biased, the better placed we will be for dealing with its consequences,” Haldane concluded. “Diversity is a public good because it corrects our biased minds in ways which benefit society – from greater creativity and innovation to more robust and resilient decision-making... This public good, like all public goods, requires an ongoing investment.”

Haldane could have been anticipating one questioner at our forum – is the overall position improving through the emphasis on diversity in today’s school classrooms? Human nature is such that there is no room for complacency, sums up the answers given. “People will find other ways to discriminate. It will evolve but it won’t go away,” one attendee replied. Another suggested that we have not evolved beyond the caveman instinct to keep out what we are afraid of.

Negative influences

Indeed there are social trends working in the opposite direction. Applause greeted the contributors who warned that there are factors in marketing that lead to more polarisation and segregation of the genders, and of the culture of misogyny that results from the prevalence of online porn. The problem also remains more acute in many other countries, and sometimes in cutting-edge industries: one of the least diverse places on earth is Silicon Valley!

Customers too can fail to practise what they preach: one lawyer told of a tender requirement that wanted to know all their firm’s gender statistics, but was followed by a framework agreement requiring the lead partner to be available 24/7.

“We still need to make a huge cultural change for the penalty women suffer for having children,” another observed, pointing to the number of young women lawyers compared with the number of partners, even if they come back after having a family.

It was widely recognised on the evening that great strides forward have been made, especially in the present century. But no one should doubt that there is still a lot of work to be done to ensure a genuine change in attitudes.  

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