The business of diversity: challenge everything

This month we went along to a couple of free events at the International Festival for Business (IFB2016), held in the Exhibition Centre, Liverpool. The Blue Skies stage has been programmed by Stephanie Power, a freelance journalist who mainly works for the BBC, so the stage has been hosting a really interesting and diverse set of high quality panel debates, in a ‘TED’ style format.

The panel debates we were particularly interested in seeing were ‘The Business of Women’ and ‘The Business of Diversity’ as these interactive sessions were hosted by some of the most inspiring local women that we know of and also covered topics we are well acquainted with, such as equality in the workplace, the skills gap and feminism.

The first debate, the business of diversity, was directed by an exceptional panel, including Sarah Churchman (HR Director at PwC), Paul Grover (Associate Director at Arup), Claire Dove OBE (Chief Executive at Blackburne House) and Kate Willard (Head of Corporate Projects at Stobart Group). The session was delivered by each panel member putting forward a ‘provocation’ to kick-start the debate, followed by an audience vote using the interactive slido app (we loved that some clever tech was being used to facilitate the debate!)slido poll on screen at a panel debate

The first provocation was from Sarah Churchman; “All organisations employing over 250 or more people should publish their diversity targets (not just gender) and show their action plans, plus executive level reward should be linked to the target achievement.”

It was a good opening gambit. Sarah had previously been part of a team working on some research which uncovered that men believe that equality does actually exist in the workplace. Is this perhaps because they have never experienced inequality? According to the same piece of research, the majority of women simply do not agree. Imagine a world where each organisation had to achieve a set of diversity targets – would this help to redress the gender imbalance, especially at a senior level? What are the actual barriers to achieving gender equality in the workplace?

The discussion ensued, firstly focussing on how there have historically been ‘jobs for the boys’ and ‘jobs for the girls.’ Does the indoctrination begin as early as primary school in most cases? Women that we have recently interviewed for the blog have said that it does, that they were discouraged from pursuing a career in tech, in favour of pursuing a sewing career. There was a strong call amoungst the members of the audience for the review of our education system, but there was also an acknowledgement that this indoctrination can also happen at home, from an early age.

The burden of care

In terms of targets, does anyone really take diversity targets seriously? Sadly, most of us thought not. There was also a point raised by one audience member that targets can end up working against the desired end result, as positive discrimination can occur as a result of the obsession to fulfil the diversity targets. Some of the barriers we discussed around women being truly equal in the workplace included the ‘burden of care’ being primarily on the female in the household, for children, sick parents, vulnerable people. It would seem that women live complex lives of domesticity, work and love. Is it men’s fault that this is the case if it’s programmed into us from birth, or is it a cultural behaviour that we just can’t quite shake? Are women perpetuating this behaviour by accepting this role for themselves?The panel on stage at IFB2016

The following debate, the business of women, sought to answer some of these questions, but sadly there were only two men present in the audience which spoke volumes in itself. Janet Beer, Vice Chancellor of the University of Liverpool (and actually the first female VC at this University) stated that only 26% of FTSE 100 board positions are held by women. Interestingly there are more men called Dave on the boards of these FTSE 100 companies than there are women – and that’s not even surprising to most of us. The 26% was a target which was achieved by Mervyn Davis, who was appointed to make this happen by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. So in that instance the target does indeed seem to have driven the desired behaviour. But is it enough? As Jude Kelly (Director of WOW festival) stated later that morning on the gender imbalance, “we’ve come a long way, but there’s still some way to go.”

The second provocation came from Paul Grover; “Businesses that fail to demonstrate that 10% of their workforce are identifiable as LGBT by the year 2020 should be fined.”

This was a fascinating debate, which prompted questions such as ‘how do we identify LGBT people? How do they even identify themselves?’ The first point raised was that the majority of us would not choose to identify, to give the government information on a census about our sexuality. That most of us, whether we are gay, straight, transsexual or bisexual, would certainly not choose to identify at work either. Why should people be forced to declare their sexuality at work to help meet a target?

Jedi knights

Even more controversial was the inevitable question around where does that 10% figure come from anyway? It transpires that this figure is based upon McKinsey reports from the 1940’s, but just stop and think for a minute how different the world was back then post second world war. On top of that it seems that the figure is not factually correct. The latest National statistics say that currently 1.5% of the UK identify themselves as LGBT. So now we were back to that question of ‘what is identifiable?’ Not many of us want to pigeon-hole ourselves into any category and much less do we want the government to know about it. The rise in the ‘Jedi knight’ category on the census form is surely a case in point! There are a large number of us who would rather identify with a fictional religion to skew the stats, than a real one. So the old adage ‘lies, damn lies and statistics’ seemed to ring true for us, and the majority of the audience voted against the 10% target – in the main because the figure seemed arbitrary and difficult to justify.

The third provocation was from Claire Dove, who has been taking positive action to advance women’s rights and equality for years, setting up Blackburne House, a local social enterprise whose mission is to be a ‘centre of education for women’. Claire stated; “Employers should require their offices / businesses to reflect the diversity of the places and communities in which they are based.”

Claire went on to highlight a well-known make up brand, who do stock specific make up products for black skin, but in the past had only employed white people in their local Liverpool store. Is this good for business? Shouldn’t that store reflect the diversity of the local community? Wouldn’t a black woman want to be served by a black woman who understands her needs?

Taking positive action

Claire’s view was that your staff can be your biggest asset (bravo!) and that people buy from people, not companies. It seemed that the audience agreed with Claire, with 76% of us voting yes, that businesses should reflect their local communities. Claire cautioned us though, to not “parade out the same black or ethnic minority person” whenever it seemed like good PR. In essence this should be about really delivering positive change, not just paying it lip service.

The fourth provocation was from Kate Willard; whose passion the audience instantly warmed to, with one member asking if ‘they could adopt her!’ Kate’s provocation was this; “Employers should stop requiring candidates to have a degree qualification.”

This sparked some interesting responses from the audience via Slido, such as ‘what are employers really looking for, and can experience make up for a lack of degree?’

Kate argued that employers are looking for innovation, team players and creativity, none of which require you to have a degree, adding “we all have different journeys to the same destination, getting a degree is just one particular prism, and it’s not a prerequisite or measure of success.” It seems that for some careers a degree will always be the standard needed, for instance, medical pathways. Yet Kate pointed out that some of the world’s most successful entrepreneurs do not have degrees, that equivalent experience, in a lot of cases, was just as relevant.

The rise of the apprenticeship

There was also an interesting point raised around whether Universities can keep up with the level of technical and digital skills required in today’s marketplace. Are their facilities up to standard? Do we prepare people for the world of work adequately? There were different views on this in the room, one being expressed by Councillor Gary Millar, who praised the work being done by LJMU in this area. It seemed that nobody in the room was seeking to devalue the degree, but it was suggested that the academic route is not always the right fit for the individual. For instance, there are some people whose learning styles are more suited to practical work and enjoy learning by doing; therefore they would thrive more in an apprenticeship or practical environment.

A further barrier to getting a degree was raised by the audience but not fully discussed; the rise in the tuition fees. Does the increase in fees hinder diversity, as only those who can afford it can now access higher education? Sadly, it seems that it will, as those from less privileged backgrounds will not have the means to fund their study. There are programmes in place which seek to address this, such as Widening Participation, but will this really redress the balance in future? The final plea was that employers should recruit fairly on balance, not just on an educational background basis. 73% of the audience agreed with Kate.

Be ambassadors for change

So on balance, yes targets can help us to redress the balance. But a focus on targets can be unhealthy and lead to a different kind of discrimination. We should all be mindful to simply understand one another more fully, to recognise that we are all different and to celebrate those differences. After all, the most successful businesses are those which welcome fresh ideas and new ways of thinking. This means not creating homogenous tribes, but diverse tribes, which reflect the communities which they operate in, and in doing so serve them better.

The session concluded with some inspiring words from the panel. Claire stated; “Diversity in the workplace is not just the right thing to do. It’s essential for the business economy.” Paul added, “This shouldn’t just be a token gesture…challenge everything!” Kate finished with; “There is a really long way to go with this. It’s infuriating. The language we use, the programmes, the schemes we put in place. Be ambassadors for change!”

We couldn’t agree more.

Get involved…

If you have some spare time between now and the beginning of July, it’s worth taking a look at the Blue Skies stage programme at IFB2016. The third week of the festival, from 27 June to 1 July is also creative and digital week, with a huge range of interesting talks, debates and sessions happening. Google are running their digital garage on the second floor of the exhibition, aimed at SME’s seeking to digitise their business or those who just need some specialist advice.

For more information, visit the website: www.ifb2016.com.