It's Time To Get Real On The Need For Diversity In The FTSE350
It is true that there has been a 'sea change' when it comes to attitudes in British business on the need for gender diversity. We no longer talk about it in "hushed tones by the water cooler" in offices, said a senior business woman at an event in London last night. There has been real progress too, when it comes to the numbers of female non-executive directors in FTSE350 boardrooms - it is worth remembering this is an index comprising a substantial number of companies, as opposed to France , say - or Norway.
Gender parity in business at senior levels by itself does not represent true diversity, but as women are 50% of the population moving them forward is an obvious place to begin when it comes to changing the status quo.
The findings of the Hampton-Alexander Review speak volumes of the need to stop thinking about 'diversity' and start thinking about 'culture', if UK business is to represent the customers it aims to serve. The laggards need shaking up - in the FTSE 250 there are 47 All-Male Executive Committees, which means that almost one in four of companies reporting have no women on the Executive Committee.
The incredulous tone of Sir Philip Hampton's words at the launch of the review suggested the need for urgent action. “I find it really strange that there are some companies, including some big household names, where there are still no women (at the top)” he said.
"We look forward to hearing cogent reasons from companies that struggle to identify women with strong executive abilities. We share the scepticism of those who also doubt that limited diversity is consistent with a meritocracy" said Sir Philip.
At last evening's event in London held by INSEAD's Independent Director Network and sponsored by Helen Pitcher's boardroom consultancy (with whom I do consultancy work), an impressive panel of speakers made clear the determination to take this issue forward. That determination was also reflected in the high level of engagement and impassioned debate in a youthful room consisting of women, and also men.
It happened to be a man - Oliver Benzecry of Accenture - who first made a clear link last night between culture and diversity, calling on the need for analytics and data tools to measure an entire business. Ruby McGregor-Smith pointed out that most CEOs cannot tell you the ethnicity breakdown throughout their company : "they just do not know."
Why is it important ? There was no time last night to go into this in detail, but it is surely because if you do not know who your employees are all the time - and not just when they are doing their jobs - then you cannot engage with them. You cannot discuss whether flexible working would be a good idea, whether shared parental leave for a man or a woman will make any difference to promotion, whether the company's tendency to demand office presence and office attire at anti-family hours is losing it talent.
Without that engagement, boardrooms are out of touch with the changing realities and choices of the lives of all their people, especially the younger ones.
Accenture, like other businesses, has committed to getting to 50:50 on gender across the organisation by 2025. Others have been more ambitious - Virgin Money's CEO, Jayne-Anne Gadhia, has committed to doing it by 2020.
There was talk of quotas last night, but it was broadly seen as a horribly regrettable alternative, given how far the UK has come on this issue without them. Whenever I hear talk of quotas in the UK, it appears to be born out of an acute sense of frustration, rather than of conviction. We are walking away from the EU, which is again to push for a 40% quota for women on company boards. But we also need to be aware of the many legal protections we gained from membership, and of the cultural impact of exit.
Empowering women in the workplace is about addressing internal succession planning, said Anne Minto.
I would argue that, in turn, is about not making assumptions about your employees - regardless of gender and ethnicity - and taking the trouble to find out what motivates them, and how it fits with the business. Data helps, but so does the time taken in one-to -one conversations, through mentoring, and through rethinking the role of the HR function.
Denise Wilson suggested that by not going down the legislative route, the UK had taken time over the issue of the diversity and the progression of women in business that has yielded "insights into a very complex subject."
We now have the insights. We know the complexity of the issues. And we can also quite clearly see those who prefer to behave like ostriches in business.
Commenting on the #AutumnBudget the other day, Mercer partner Gary Simmons said: "whilst there is no 'magic money tree', there is no 'magic people tree' either." He was referring to what he saw as a missed opportunity to address the people gap through automation if migration is not to be the solution for our businesses.
It seems there are no magic trees in post-Brexit land whatsoever, and British business needs to make the very best of the talent it can draw in. In a rapidly changing world, the UK cannot afford - literally - to be left behind.
Why, at the end of the day, is Accenture so concerned with 50:50 gender and improved diversity ? "We have lost business from not being diverse enough" said Mr Benzecry last night.
You can expect to see further events and initiatives launched across UK businesses to end what appears to be a major stall in progression on diversity.
If that doesn't work, ladies - you can always take the 'direct action' approach and vote with the substantial power of your wallets: don't buy goods and services from businesses that persist in having all-male executive committees.
"I was struck earlier this year by a comment from a major institutional investor, who said that a shareholder should expect businesses to promote on merit, and that it was doubtful that a proper meritocracy would consistently lead to a massive preponderance of white males at the top" said Sir Philip when the Hampton-Alexander Review was published.
Institutional investors have a lot of power in their hands on this issue, should they choose to use it.