Aren’t we done with diversity? See you in 2186

Monday 2 August 2017

Article by Megan Wilson


Everybody’s been talking about gender diversity for a while now. We celebrate International Women’s Day. We proudly announce our boardroom targets. And we pat ourselves on the back for offering flexible working arrangements for mothers and fathers returning to work. So why keep it on the agenda at all?

I don’t think we should ever stop talking about diversity. At least not for the next 170 years, which is the estimated time to reach gender parity , according to the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report.

The AICD statistics on board diversity show that at the end of May 2017, only 25.4% of ASX 200 Board members were women and 13 ASX 200 Boards didn’t have any women at all. Women comprised 30% of new appointments to ASX 200 Boards in 2017 so far, down from 44% in 2016. This problem isn’t going away. And we’re not even talking about diversity across ethnicity, culture, ability and sexual identity.

Many types of disconnect

EY’s research has found that even where boards and corporations accept there is a problem, there is a disconnect between perception and reality. Many boards assume and assert that parity is just around the corner. They may be measuring today’s numbers instead of tomorrow’s pipeline. Men may say that there is a shortage of suitably skilled female candidates. True, women are under-represented in some fields, especially STEM, but women already in the field should be allowed a fair go. Women, on the other hand, will cite as their biggest barriers an unsupportive culture, bias in the organisation and the tensions in juggling career and family.

We risk getting complacent in a culture where long hours are rewarded and we wear a 50-hour week like a badge of honour. Flexible working practices ironically lead to an “always on” mentality, with working from home and outside office hours made that much easier by technology. I’ve seen many part-time parents go full-time because they were doing the hours anyway.

Why is this still an issue?

There is probably a fair amount of change fatigue, the belief that we’ve been working very hard and have tried everything so surely it’s all sorted by now. But it’s easy to focus in the wrong areas and we are sabotaging our efforts in some ways.

Choosing people like me

Our brains make quick decisions based on our own prejudices so we tend to rule out staffing and leadership options which don’t sit well with us, without even being aware of it. We are still more comfortable recruiting and working with people who look like us.

One option is to offer unconscious bias training to recruiters and staff alike, to help counteract the problem. But training isn’t the solution, at least, it won’t be until it’s done better. It needs to be action-oriented and content should be structured around the workplace context. Sociological discussions about gender bias can just make people defensive.

In working to close the gender gap. EY has formalised a practice of equitable sponsorship and is asking partners around the world to sponsor people who don’t look like them and come from a different background.

Women aren’t that ambitious

Male leaders may pass women over for promotion on the assumption that they’re “not hungry enough”. Maybe this is at play when it comes to board selection, too, even when potential female board appointments are at the top of their profession. A report by BCG has dispelled the myth of the so-called “gender ambition” gap and found that women start their careers with just as much ambition as men and, importantly, that their level of ambition depends on the company and the opportunities it offers.

Why should we be seeing more women on boards?

Our clients expect it and it’s better for business. Some of our clients are much further ahead when it comes to diversity and they will expect us to catch up. Research shows positive links between gender balance on boards and financial performance, corporate governance and responsibility, and market acuity. As an audit partner at EY member firm, I have seen time and again how much better a diverse audit team performs.

It’s the right thing to do. Whether or not a diverse board performs a little or a lot better than its all-male counterpart, gender diversity is about equality of treatment. Denying women a seat at the table is a form of discrimination.

It’s the way the world is heading. A 2015 McKinsey report says that by advancing women’s equality, $12 trillion could be added to global GDP by 2025. And EY’s report, Women the Next Emerging Market , shows that over the next decade, the impact of women on the global economy will be equivalent to China and India combined, as producers, entrepreneurs, consumers and employees.

Please join us at Women World Changers , AmCham’s Diversity Summit on 9 October in Melbourne and 11 October in Sydney.

Megan Wilson is a Partner at EY, and a member of AmCham’s Women in Leadership Committee in NSW.

The views expressed in this article are the views of the author, not Ernst & Young. This article provides general information, does not constitute advice and should not be relied on as such. Professional advice should be sought prior to any action being taken in reliance on any of the information. Liability limited by a scheme approved under Professional Standards Legislation.


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