London, June 12 2019 image via ING Media

I am an international hybrid and a long-time journalist with a broad span of intellectual curiosity and a passion for ideas to help business work better, with basic human values to underpin the process.


Do We Have Groupthink In The UK When It Comes To Diversity ?

Do We Have Groupthink In The UK When It Comes To Diversity ?

At an event in London hosted by the regulator the Financial Reporting Council last week to mark the continuing drive for diversity among the top ranks of Britain’s businesses, something potentially exciting happened. For possibly the first time in the near-decade in which I have been attending such events, audience participation made the panel visibly uncomfortable, and the room sit up and take note.

The event was entitled Diversity is not just a female issue, and it pivoted around the launch of the Female FTSE Board Report 2019, annual research from Cranfield University into the state of play on diversity in the FTSE 350. Until very recently, this focus has been almost entirely around the need for better gender representation since Lord Davies first launched his review into women on boards in 2011. The Hampton-Alexander Review, chaired by Sir Philip Hampton, continues to keep up the pressure, extended now to women in senior executive roles and in the pipeline. But, as I recently covered on Board Talk, there appears to be a problem for some businesses when it comes to mindset.

The headline in the Financial Times on the morning of the event, July 11 2019, captures the thrust of the report: UK companies accused of box-ticking over female appointments. Cranfield found, too, that only one in 10 women on FTSE boards were from black, Asian or other minority ethnic (BAME) backgrounds.

While action on the debate around female progress marches steadily on in the UK, scrutiny on the lack of ethnic representation and disparities in economic opportunity across a variety of social backgrounds has not resulted in the same impetus, regardless of government-backed reviews. The two issues have become muddled together however, in a way that may be unhelpful for progress when it comes to diversity in business.

“A panel chaired by Katie Prescott, Senior Broadcast Journalist on the BBC Today Programme, will discuss what more can be done to ensure boards are more diverse in terms of gender and ethnicity, nationality, age, education and background” said the FRC’s description of the event, and the room was packed. The panel, we were told, consisted of Fiona Cannon OBE, Group Director, Responsible Business, Sustainability and Inclusion, Lloyds Banking Group; Brenda Trenowden CBE, Global Chair of the 30% Club and Professor Sue Vinnicombe CBE, Professor of Women and Leadership, Strategy at Cranfield University and the report's lead author.

L to R: Fiona Cannon, Brenda Trenowden, Susan Vinnicombe, Katie Prescott July 11, London

L to R: Fiona Cannon, Brenda Trenowden, Susan Vinnicombe, Katie Prescott July 11, London

For the first time since gender representation in boardrooms first came into the spotlight eight years ago with the Davies Review, the Cranfield report launched that morning includes a llst of 50 “Women to Watch” highlighting female professionals from BAME backgrounds. There was applause when this was announced by Dr Doyin Atewologun, Director of the Gender, Leadership and Inclusion Centre at Cranfield University, co-author of the report and a non-white face at the podium.

“This year we challenge assumptions about the type of woman suited to board positions showcasing senior women who come from backgrounds historically under-represented in the senior leadership pipeline. We show that board members need not be drawn solely from the finance, legal, banking or professional services sectors, but can also come from the worlds of media, technology, academia and the third sector” she said.

Dr Atewologun added: “We need to be sure that we are not only advancing progress for a certain small group of women, but are truly pushing board diversity in every sense.” As she was speaking, I noted in looking around that the room looked remarkably more diverse than it has ever looked at one of these events.

But once the presentations were over and the panel had finished, nothing new appeared to have been said. And this is when something rather surprising happened - somebody stood up and called it as they saw it. In my experience, it doesn’t tend to happen at events around diversity.

Sophie Chandauka, an executive director at Morgan Stanley and a woman of colour, stood up and said: “This is not a diverse panel,” essentially asking how we were to get change in the system with such a starting point.

Ms Chandauka spoke eloquently of a self-perpetuating problem of invisibility for those who are outside the networks of British business by virtue simply of not being seen, not being included when it matters. She herself is hardly invisible in her achievements in the world of business. Her LinkedIn profile will tell you she is Global COO of Morgan Stanley’s Shared Services and Banking Operations. Prior to that, she was EMEA CAO of Morgan Stanley's Legal and Compliance Division, she has held a senior position at Virgin Money, and is a former Senior Associate at global firm Baker McKenzie. She is Zimbabwe-born, articulate and clearly extremely intelligent and, unlike many in Britain, not reluctant to talk of ‘women of colour’ in a room where they were still very much in a minority.

In Cranfield’s Women to Watch report, Ms Chandauka is credited as Chair of the TNON Advisory Board - The Network Of Networks (TNON) and is Co-founder and Chair of the Judges for the BBBAwards - which provided the names for the Cranfield list. Ironically, her name does not appear among the 50 women to watch, arguably because that would look like self-promotion - although I have to say that with an eyebrow well raised. Being involved in events around fostering gender diversity in the UK has in itself become a means of self-promotion.

I have spoken to her briefly since the event and she confirmed that the list of BAME ‘Women to Watch’ could have been much longer. As a member both of the steering committee of the 30% Club and co-founder of the black business awards endorsed by Prime Minister Theresa May, the Mayor of the City of London and prominent business leaders, she is well-connected.

Why, then, is it that the headhunters, and the networks that are meant to be driving change, and the panels and the discussions behind closed doors on the need for diverse talent, keep missing people like her ?

Cranfield has aligned itself with the TNON and the BBBAwards to include this list in its report, but it feels like a rather useful token gesture. It was a little shocking that although the supplement contains a mere 50 names with non-white faces, it received so much applause. If we are going to congratulate ourselves, I would suggest we need to do a lot better than reproduce homogeneity on panels. The real reason for the diversity in the room was the invitation list, which was provided by TNON and the BBBAwards.

All the images of non-white faces in the Cranfield report itself are ‘stock images’ ie they are not ‘real people’, said Ms Chandauka. Why was that ? Could they find no real ‘women of colour’ to present pictorially outside the special supplement ? Again, it has the effect of making a large section of the population invisible.

“The issue (for people of colour) is that when you are there, you are still not seen. We are here. You just don’t see us” she said.

What is going on in Britain ? We cannot possibly get genuine diversity in our businesses by operating in silos around colour and aspirational professional and social networking and engagement. Ms Chandauka spoke of ’intersectionality’ -a term used to refer to the interconnected nature of social categorizations such as race, class, and gender as they apply to a given individual or group. Intersectionality creates overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantage, and dealing with that is the real problem we face today.

In the corridors of business and political leadership the country is extremely uncomfortable talking about race and ethnicity, although outgoing Prime Minister Theresa May has championed ethnic minority rights. Some of the discomfort might be a national character awkwardness on a complicated and difficult topic, but there is also fear - just as there is fear in boardrooms at change, and technological transformation, and admitting a lack of knowledge in business when it comes to cybersecurity.

It is further complicated by the fact that in the last three years since the EU referendum vote as a country we have become much more aware of the need to tackle regional economic disparities, inequality, and social mobility for productivity and economic growth. The attention of our leadership has been too distracted over Brexit to do much about it in practical terms. There is a real danger, as a result, that issues around the need for real diversity in business get muddled together with other worthy thinking on social mobility and inclusion.

“We are already at the parties that you think you might invite us to attend. And we are there on our own merit as professionals. But you just don’t see us” said Ms Chandauka.

Having followed the gender diversity debate over the last decade, it seems to me that one of the biggest reasons for its circularity is that, like all groupthink, it seeks to re-create in its own image. That is how we end up with a panel like the one pictured above to discuss how to fix the diversity issue.

Ms Chandauka spoke to me about her sense that there is a widespread perception in the UK that being black is about “being poor.” “If you fix the poverty, you will get more black people rising up the ladder” is the thinking, she suggested. Trickle-down economics never did work, as far as I am concerned. Trickle-down diversity and inclusion is even less likely to be effective.

Whether you agree with the sentiments she expressed or not, I hope - like me - you are asking yourself how it is that you have not come across Sophie Chandauka before now in all the mainstream media coverage in the UK around gender diversity.

Cover image credit: Inbal Marilli on Unsplash

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