For real diversity, businesses need to think beyond gender parity

Increasing representation of women in the boardroom is a great start, but organisations have to consider other minority groups too, argues Rosanna Duncan

We’ve seen huge strides in recent years toward gender diversity around the top table of business. According to the latest Hampton Alexander review, the number of women on FTSE 100 boards is now over 30 per cent. The official UK target is that by 2020, a third of senior leadership positions in the FTSE 350 should be filled by women. 

But can there be a meaningful impact on an organisation beyond the boardroom if we’re not mindful of other aspects of diversity including the ethnicity and, critically, socio-economic background of our leaders? 

We know that true diversity of thought adds real value to the bottom line of any business, as a range of perspectives improves decision-making at all levels. Gender parity is just one piece of the inclusion jigsaw. And yet, in the rush to achieve gender parity targets in the boardroom, we risk seeing women as a homogenous group, when female board members are often likely to be from similar backgrounds (and bring similar perspectives) to their male counterparts. 

In fact, research shows that women who sit on FTSE 100 boards have three times the educational qualifications of the men who sit alongside them. It stands to reason that women from less economically advantaged backgrounds face even greater barriers as they are less able to access that kind of education, and the social networks that come with them.  

The result is not only a lack of diversity, but an organisation whose priorities and decisions are all made through the same lens.

Consider a scenario where a board is presented with an HR strategy for a new work shadowing programme. A homogenous group of people may not anticipate the number of qualified applicants without the means to work for free. They could include lone parents, people with caring responsibilities, or young people who lack the support of the Bank of Mum and Dad. Ultimately, the board’s limited perspective could prevent them from shifting the needle on diversity and inclusion throughout the business, regardless of gender parity. 

A non-diverse board can prioritise postgraduate qualifications that are often unnecessary and more accessible to those from economically advantaged backgrounds.   

Existing leaders seek future leaders of the same age and similar career experience to them, even though the number of years spent in a role is not a reliable indicator of future performance. This can act as a barrier to young people and those who have had to take time away from the job market, either because of a health condition or due to caring responsibilities.  

Simply put, while increasing female representation at the highest level is crucial, the challenges of creating a diverse and inclusive organisation cannot be solved by female representation alone.  

I’ve spent several years working for Palladium, which operates in some of the world’s most challenging environments. It’s ironic that the sector is dominated by those who, irrespective of gender, are likely to be from well-off backgrounds. 

That is why in addition to gender parity at the board level, Palladium has made such a concerted effort to increase diversity and inclusion across its wider leadership team, shareholder base, and beyond. This developed from a recognition – which began in the boardroom – that people strategies set at the top, such as talent acquisition and employee retention, establish a tone which promotes the creation of a truly diverse and inclusive working environment.    

The challenges are complex, and there is not one silver bullet. Gender parity on boards is not a panacea or a quick fix, but rather just one part of the puzzle. 

Diversity must be viewed in its widest context. My challenge to all those who occupy a seat in the boardroom is to build an open and accessible culture of real opportunity which permeates throughout the fabric of the businesses they lead.  

Rosanna Duncan is chief diversity officer at Palladium