HR & Management

Supporting diversity: Which battles do you fight?

8 min read

04 February 2015

There are many groups and campaigns to promote women in all aspects of their lives: to increase their participation in education; sport and exercise; to run their own businesses; to study science and technology; to rise to the top of their organisation and lead the way and to feel confident when taking a career break for caring responsibilities either for children or aging relatives. Importantly, we know we need to work on these challenges at a global level.

We also know that men have to be part of this – and HeForShe is a high profile campaign to encourage men to actively promote their support and engage in the diversity debate.

I believe women know they are capable of all of these activities, roles and responsibilities and more. They know they may need to make choices. Yes, some of us are better at certain choices than others. Sometimes I wonder if the debates and challenges are new, or, if they have always been around. Perhaps, as is my suspicion, for many women, we know the issues well. We have just been getting on with it, working on our careers, deciding how to manage childcare, exercise, supporting each other and not forgetting having fun.

We just negotiate the balance with employers, partners, families and friends. Yes, there is always a need for more support. Yes, we do need to shout louder about our achievements and skills and yes, sadly, there are still barriers to break down, challenges to meet and people to convince we are more than capable of the roles we aspire to. We need all of these campaigns. We need to support each other and I strongly believe we do. Our ambition and determination for equality of opportunity drives, has driven, and will continue to energize women for many years. 

That ‘special place in hell’ that Madeleine Albright cited for women who don’t support others, is, I suspect a very empty place and quite rightly so.

Promoting board room diversity 

Diversity on boards is one debate, one part of the picture and a numerical definition is one way to present it. The routes to the boardroom are many, some less direct than others, with barriers of different sizes and shapes. We all agree that these women who achieve such roles are valuable not just to the boards and companies for which they work. They are also role models, inspirational examples of success that other women might want to achieve. These women will be, we hope, challenging assumptions, raising the quality of the boardroom debates, promoting better decision-making and through their work.

There are many debates about what membership of boards should be. The points of agreement rest on the need for greater diversity of membership and skills. The 40-40-20 campaign is aiming to achieve at least a 40 – 40 split of gender on Public Sector boards with the remaining 20 per cent of members being either men or women. The Davis Report is pushing for a target of 25 per cent of board membership to be women – to be achieved this year! We are nearly there… the figures have yet to be confirmed but many reports and articles suggest that on the FTSE 100 women make up 22.8 per cent of board members – although there are no exact numbers to explain the percentage figure.
The more the topic of diversity on boards is raised, the more awareness grows.

We need to see that women are not just getting seats at the table but that they are also considered for the key roles whether an executive or a non-executive position.
I do what I can professionally and personally to strongly support these campaigns. I am not alone in wanting to see more women taking roles which impact on the ways in which organisations make decisions, define and implement their global strategies spend money, and on all those other important issues that keep people employed and the wheels of business turning. I am sure that many of you reading this would agree – but on a personal level what changes can you make?

What do we mean by diversity? Diversity in the boardroom: it’s not only about women

Diversity and balancing gender participation in organisations can be viewed from a variety of perspectives. Companies, through their literature and on websites etc. would all say they support diversity – but what do they mean? Surely what needs to happen is for each company to say what diversity means to them and their staff: is it about roles, language, behaviours, what is featured on the website or even corporate entertainment? Each organisation has its own culture that creates the atmosphere, ways of working and attitudes that their staff contribute to and embody through the way each of them behaves, speaks, conducts business, and deals with customers, shareholders and competitors.

And this is where you can make a difference: Talking about what diversity means now and what could be different at an operational everyday level can really begin to challenge some of that unconscious bias that is around: 

  • Do meetings really need to take place at 5.30 when participants would really like to get home to see their children before bedtime?
  • Do conferences need to take place during school holidays?
  • Are there more meat than vegetarian choices on the catering menus?
  • Does everyone in the team know about the religious celebrations of all its members, or just Christmas and Easter?

Opening discussions on attitude, challenging ideas, and suggesting changes can impact in your team and department, even spreading within the division and across the different sites of the organisation. What’s more, these conversations can show diversity as more than just a better balance of men and women.

So my challenge to you is to raise topics which encourage people to think about what diversity means and how the ways we work and what we do day to day can support equality of opportunity at all levels. These are battles we can support and win.

Ruth Sacks is senior lecturer in Leadership & Development: Learning & Teaching Fellow at University of Westminster Business School.

If you’d like to discuss how we can meet your individual or organisational leadership development and training requirements – please contact me -R.Sacks@westminster.ac.uk – and we can arrange a time to talk.

Concerned with issues surrounding gender diversity in business? Don’t miss Real Business’s First Women programme:

Drawing on ten years of the First Women movement and the phenomenal network of pioneering women the Awards has created, this programme features The First Women Awards and The First Women Summit – designed to educate, mentor and inspire women in all levels of business.