As the high-street fills with festive shoppers and Slade blasts from the kitchen radio, I draw my own yuletide comfort from a favourite family tradition: the pantomime. It’s not for everyone, but an evening of being squirted with water pistols by an energetic Buttons and the audience chants of “Oh no it isn’t” and “Oh yes it is!” have been with me from childhood.
It’s customary for the pantomime’s lead roles to swap gender for the evening. The panto dame, played by a man, is gaudily dressed and scathingly witty. The hero – an Aladdin or similar – is adroit, wins the day and is played by a woman. It’s all good knock about stuff which has audiences laughing aloud.
At a number of events I have attended on the issue of diversity this year, including our own just last month, I have been shocked to learn that there are many who still feel that for women to reach the boardroom, they too must act like men. It’s a big concern. For one, people should be judged on their own merit, not a willingness to ape the behaviours of their male colleagues. Secondly, businesses that create environments where women feel they must act like men are depriving themselves of a key value of diversity.
Man or woman, black or white, working class or upper class, we view the world in different ways. We see opportunities in different places and bring different perspectives to meeting challenges. Broaden the diversity of a group and you widen its peripheral vision. This is the advantage of diverse groups working together and they perform better as a consequence. A piece of research on diversity from Grant Thornton last year showed exactly that. With a mixture of men and women at the helm, firms enjoy higher collective intelligence, connections to a wider network and increased legitimacy among stakeholders.
But despite the strong link between diversity in decision-making and business performance the dial on gender diversity is shifting at an excruciatingly slow rate. According to Grant Thornton, the number of women occupying senior business roles in the UK has moved just three percentage points in a decade and stands at a measly 22%.
So why is this? Reams of research has sought to uncover the complex causes behind it. The glass ceiling effect, where unbreachable barriers keeps women from rising to the top; and the lesser known glass cliff effect, where women who do manage to overcome these barriers are placed in precarious positions that set them up to fail. The prevalence of quick fixes like quotas, which create tokenistic behaviours such as appointing a woman to the board, achieving superficial diversity without changing a thing about how the company operates. The fact that women tend to be mentored, not sponsored, eliciting advice but not that all-important action that could lead to real career traction.
Clearly more must be done to improve corporate culture to accommodate and nurture female leadership, while evaluating the commercial benefits of diversity and making these transparent. There are no simple solutions, but moving the discussion away from a focus on numbers towards making the numbers count would mark an important step in the right direction. Do women stay on the board, for example? What role do they serve? How many women are in executive roles? Do they have a direct impact on the company?
Post-Brexit the UK will need to be more productive, more innovative and in many ways more open. Diversity can be key. But, given many of the pantomine measures that have been introduced so far, it’s unlikely we’ll be able to say “It’s behind you” to describe workplace inequality any time soon.