Experts warn of ‘diversity fatigue’ as UK businesses tire of glacial pace of gender parity

4 Mar 2019 By Maggie Baska

Speakers at Women in Business conference tell of ‘eye-rolling’ and resentment from leaders 

Diversity fatigue is rife in the UK, as businesses making efforts to improve gender equality become frustrated with the slow pace of change, experts have warned.

Speakers at this year’s London Business School Women in Business (WiB) conference explained how businesses, even if they feel they are making strides towards diversity and inclusion, are still failing to push women through their talent pipelines.

Dame Helena Morrissey (pictured above), founder of The 30% Club, which aims for more gender balance on boards, said that while some progress had been made towards gender parity, it was still the case that only a small number of women were making it to the top. 

Morrissey, who is also head of personal investing at Legal and General Investment Management, said: “Many [women] tell me they feel discouraged about their prospects, [and] unfulfilled or conflicted in their multiple roles – particularly if they are a parent.”

She added many companies were also frustrated with the “glacial progress” towards gender parity.

“They feel they are doing a huge amount to encourage their female talent, and now their other diverse talent,” Morrissey said. “There’s a sort of diversity fatigue that has set in. There is a certain level of eye-rolling when the subject is mentioned, and resentment – particularly around concepts like flexible working.” 

As a result, Morrissey said she thought organisations needed to take a fresh approach towards gender equality in the workplace. 

“If we choose to take the opportunity, then I think we stand on the verge of a new era where gender balance and greater diversity generally is seen as an important part of the solution to the very many problems we have today – not as it currently so often is as another problem to solve,” Morrissey said. 

Speakers at the conference also said policies that drove gender equality in the past were no longer effective, and businesses needed to be creative in how they hire, retain, promote, develop, train and engage employees to see real results. 

Herminia Ibarra, author and professor of organisational behaviour at London Business School, said businesses had made progress regarding gender equality but stalled on getting more women to the senior most levels. Her research found that while organisations had become more gender diverse at entry level and board level, senior leadership roles remained “a bit of a stickler” despite efforts to diversify senior talent.

“We absolutely know there is a problem in the pipeline. It’s not leading to the top because past the middle level of an organisation [businesses are] not channelling women into those roles or assignments that lead to the top.” 

She highlighted previous research that found women were increasingly put in support roles as they progress in an organisation, which resulted in them stagnating and not moving into the senior levels of businesses. Ibarra added that women were “over mentored and under sponsored”. 

However, Morrissey warned against using positive discrimination, which meant “solving one injustice with another”. Positive discrimination, where a recruiter makes a decision based on a protected characteristic such as gender or ethnicity in order to improve diversity, is currently illegal except in very limited circumstances. 

Recently, the leader of Britain’s police chiefs came under scrutiny after she said positive discrimination in favour of potential employees from minority ethnic backgrounds was required to make police forces more representative of the communities they serve. She said new laws should be passed to “shock the system”.

Other experts at the WiB conference said the shifting world of work had placed greater emphasis on work-life balance and the role employers play in supporting working parents.

Claire Campbell, programme director at Timewise, said the introduction of shared parental leave (SPL) was “arguably a good step forward” in businesses supporting parents, but added: “It’s a big difference from having a policy that allows it in theory to people actually being willing to do it in practice.” 

She said that while better policies were now in place, many parents, particularly fathers, remained concerned that taking SPL would have a detrimental impact on their career. Workplace culture needed to change and business leaders had to be seen using these policies if greater uptake was to happen.

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