The danger of preaching to the converted

“Any CEO who ignores the 42 per cent increase in sales [that diversity can provide through better corporate performance] should be shot,” Lynne Featherstone, minister for equalities, said this morning. “It’s not about equality for equality’s sake. It’s about making your company better.”

Featherstone was speaking to an audience of FTSE 350 chairmen, executives and business leaders at the “Women on Boards” breakfast briefing in London.

The arguments rehearsed by an eminent line-up of panellists at this breakfast briefing were not new. Nor were the findings of the six-month monitoring report produced by Ruth Sealy and her colleagues at Cranfield University’s School of Management. The report tracks FTSE 100 and FTSE 250 companies’ progress towards minimum targets set out by Lord Davies’ committee in February. These targets have been set as “an effective voluntary alternative to quotas,” says Denise Wilson, a member of Lord Davies’ steering group.

There are more women sitting on the boards of Britain’s largest companies today than six months ago – 21 more, to be precise. Of these, 14 had no prior FTSE 100 or FTSE 250 board experience, showing a willingness by board chairmen to consider a wider pool of talent for non-executive positions. For the first time there are more FTSE 250 boards with at least one female director than all-male boards, and only 13 all-male boards survive in the FTSE 100.

While welcoming the improved diversity figures, Sir Philip Hampton, chairman of the Royal Bank of Scotland, warned that progress was still slow, making it difficult to meet the upcoming 2013 and 2015 targets. He urged companies to examine the pipeline of talent coming through organisations at the executive committee level and the layer below. To date, only 4 per cent of FTSE 100 and FTSE 250 companies have set diversity targets for their executive committees.

Steve Holliday, chief executive of National Grid, warned that all the work by Cranfield and others failed to take into account the numbers of women leaving board positions, for whatever reason.

After the presentations and panel discussions, the real debate began. While an impressive turnout of FTSE company chairmen (and yes they are all men), chief executives and non-executive directors is proof that diversity is taken seriously in parts of corporate Britain, that is not the whole story.

Perhaps, if Boyden, the executive search firm that co-hosted the breakfast, really wants to accelerate change, it should organise a debate to include representatives of companies that have no women directors, no targets and little belief in the arguments.

“Performance in a company is about engagement, and getting your staff engaged,” said Lord Davies via a video link. Engagement, I would argue, needs to proselytise beyond the church walls if diversity is to be more than a footnote in the corporate and social responsibility paragraph of companies’ annual reports.

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