31 Oct 2017
DIVERSITY AND DISTRACTION
Even the sternest critics of the pace of equal opportunities would be hard pressed to disagree that progress has certainly been made in the four decades since the Sex Discrimination Act made its way onto the statute book.
Although the aim of the legislation was to provide both protection and prospects irrespective of gender, the benefits of the Act have mainly been felt by women.
Businesses have also reaped the rewards of having capable women making an equally valuable contribution.
Nevertheless, there have remained complaints about women being only able to advance so far. Many executives have remarked on their rise up the corporate ladder being thwarted by the ‘glass ceiling’.
Successive governments have added their weight to demands that any and all obstacles to true diversity be removed.
In 2011, the former Labour minister Lord Davies of Abersoch began a five-year review of female representation on the boards of businesses making the FTSE 100
When he published the results of his research, he concluded that the companies had succeeded – just - in exceeding his target of having 25 per cent of all boardroom positions occupied by women.(https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/482059/BIS-15-585-women-on-boards-davies-review-5-year-summary-october-2015.pdf).
He proclaimed the achievement as ‘a near revolution’.
The findings were hailed as a demonstration of how genuinely willing firms were to embrace the concept of diversity but such sentiments were checked by a warning from an influential successor body (the Women on Boards Review, led by Sir Philip Hampton) that the move towards equality had stalled somewhat.
He noted that the number of new roles going to women between September last year and March 2017 was the lowest such proportion since 2011 (http://www.independent.co.uk/news/business/news/uk-gender-diversity-equality-corporate-boards-stall-push-for-new-study-the-pipeline-a7832756.html).
Sir Philip’s observations coincided with arguably the most comprehensive study of the issue by the team at Beyond Analysis and the leading business consultant, David O’Brien.
We set out to determine how close the reported developments matched up to actuality. Sadly, we concluded that if Lord Davies had taken into account how FTSE firms have appointed women, then he might have had no option but to admit that they had fallen short of his objective.
Our study considered an entire decade’s worth of annual reports generated by the FTSE 100 companies themselves.
As I’ve been telling The Independent (http://www.independent.co.uk/news/business/news/gender-diversity-ftse-100-boards-worse-female-representation-appointments-companies-research-a8029261.html), the number of women in senior positions certainly increased but the vast majority were in non-executive positions.
In addition, only two women were appointed from within companies to the role of CEO out of 81 such internal appointments over the period in question.
More telling is the fact that, at the time the research was finalised, there were more CEOs of FTSE 100 firms named David than there were women of similar rank.
The overall picture suggests that firms might merely have been eager to tackle the diversity issue because it was immediate or topical.
Maintaining the push towards equality of gender, age or sexual orientation requires much more commitment from business and politicians alike.
With Brexit consuming so much effort in Westminster, the battle to break smash through the ‘glass ceiling’ is perhaps not seen as so important now.
I would suggest, though, that as interminable as negotiations to disentangle the UK from the EU might seem for the moment, the economy needs as many talented businessmen and women as it can muster in order to cope with the consequences of relative diplomatic isolation.
That is the kind of long-term thinking which renders those who regard women as the wrong gender to lead the country’s drive for self-sufficiency as especially short-sighted.