With so much negative coverage about women’s issues in the press at the moment, Robert Bruce decides to take a moment to assess just how far the agenda has come
This article was first published in the March 2018 UK edition of Accounting and Business magazine.
You can measure change in many different ways. You can, as accountants generally do, use the numbers. But often culture, and the way it is changing, tells you more – it is just harder to measure. Often it is a sudden insight that tells you that change is accelerating, or an anniversary that makes you take stock, such as the centenary of women getting the vote. And this is true when it comes to diversity in the workplace.
It is a decade since President Obama pointed out that it was unarguable that ‘our daughters should have the same opportunities as our sons’. That obvious but simple statement is now underscored by the statistical growth of women on boards of companies, in senior positions and in what is referred to as ‘the pipeline’ – on their way up the management ladder.
It is also underscored by the figures that show how diversity changes the way that companies work and the results they achieve. This process will be assisted by the law that comes into force in the UK this April, which will disclose, make public, and trigger debate around the gender pay gaps in all companies with more than 250 employees.
The latest research, Delivering Through Diversity, from consultants McKinsey, showed happily that between 2011 and 2015, for example, the most gender-diverse quarter of companies were 21% more likely than the least diverse to experience above-average financial performance. So the growth is there and the cultural change is working its way through business. But it is slow.
At the World Economic Forum in Davos this year, among the 2,622 people invited, only 15% were women. Meanwhile, the push towards getting 33% representation of women on UK company boards looks as though it will be reached later this year. Back in 2008, less than 12% of FTSE 100 companies had female board members.
Statistically, the nature of boards is changing, although this may be the result of easy moves such as the appointment of women as non-executive directors.
However, while the 33% target may be fulfilled soon and will go on rising, it is the pipeline that is key. Cultural change will come about as the management teams lower down reflect a greater proportion of women. And that is undoubtedly happening. Across the spectrum, from financial services to the NHS, the presence of dynamic female managers and directors is making itself felt. This is the important stuff – not senior people hitting measurable senior posts, but a critical mass of competency coming through.
It came home to me forcibly the other day at a charity Burns Supper held in London. The ‘Reply from the Lassies’, traditionally given as a mild riposte by the women present, was made by the managing director of a banking institution. That told you something. Her closing rhymes told you more: ‘A limit to our abilities… there is not/Which is why we are there in your office/Increasingly now as your boss/Directing your home space/CEO of your workplace/Who says that we don’t bear a cross?’ And concluded: ‘As your social and cerebral equals/We have changed all the rules…don’t you know?’ The full-throated roar around the room told you the speed of change was no longer in doubt.
Robert Bruce is an accountancy commentator and journalist
"The important thing is not senior people hitting measurable senior posts but a critical mass of competency coming through."