Increasing diversity in business is not only morally right - it's the key to success

Research has found that companies whose boards were made up of at least a third by women are 42 per cent more profitable - it makes perfect sense.

A fortnight ago I stood up to deliver a key note speech at the Women’s Business Forum conference. I took up the opportunity to discuss the importance of promoting diversity in the workplace with relish, as it is a topic that has been at the forefront of my mind throughout my career.

Women and their promotion to top flight positions is an important part of the picture. Despite the notable announcement a few weeks ago that Janet Yellen will become the next Chairman of the Federal Reserve - the first woman to occupy the post - there remains a lot of work to be done if women are to have the same opportunity to acquire executive positions as their male counterparts.

A recent report by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) found that female employment rates in the UK continue to lag behind those for men, despite the recent rise in the state pension age for women pushing the figure up slightly. Furthermore the study found that women are increasingly disappearing from executive jobs - women only occupy a quarter of the highest paid top ten per cent of posts.

That there is a dearth of female talent represented at board level in the UK is a truth universally acknowledged. White papers have been drawn up to address this dilemma. In the Davies Report, published in 2011 and penned by Lord Davies of Abersoch, Lord Davies proffers a solution to redress the current gender imbalance of UK boards, calling for strong voluntary action in the shape of FTSE100 companies signing up to the voluntary target of having 25 per cent of their boards comprising women by 2015.

Recommendations such as this are laudable and achievable and I believe are a more organic way of bringing about effective change than using the blunt instrument of legislation to introduce mandatory quotas. However, it is unequivocally true that rapid change is essential.

The issue of women on boards is part of a wider debate about encouraging diversity in the workplace. This matter is more essential and greater than the need to increase the number of female CEOs and board-level executives, although this is important it leaves itself open to accusations of "tokenism". Diversity is about effecting a cultural change in organisations and industries, transforming businesses from close-minded institutions to those that embrace diversity in all formats. The reasons for bringing about change are manifold but are more complicated than mere sexual politics and political correctness.

A recent piece of research found that companies whose boards were made up of at least a third by women are 42 per cent more profitable. Diversity in the work place is not only a healthy, laudable corporate ideal to embrace, it is also profitable. The 30 Percent Club, founded by Newton Investment Management's CEO Helena Morrissey, has a strapline under its tree logo that I think is particularly important: "Growth through diversity". It is this message - growth through diversity - that is so important. Simply put, companies are more likely to thrive with a diverse workforce.

It is my sincere belief that diversity should form the backbone of a well-rounded and robust business plan. This business tenet stems from a desire to create a culture whereby the best and brightest talent can lead regardless of gender, religion, race or sexual orientation. It is this objective, this vision, that has been the principal driver of the last 35 years of my life as a business-building lawyer.  

Diversity is a source of competitive advantage; a better business is a more diverse business. Assembling diverse teams enables more innovation, greater customer awareness, and generates better results. People, cultures and states are not homogeneous, they are heterogeneous - this is particularly true in today's global society. Consequently businesses should strive to be as diverse as the countries and regions they operate in. Creating this workplace balance is part of building a successful firm, but actions, not just words, are required to bring this about. Those businesses that do not encourage diversity should start doing so now, or else face quotas or, even more likely, falling revenues as more dynamic, diverse competitors steal a march.

The all-male board of Fisons Ltd in 1960 - how much has changed in 2013? Photograph: Central Press/Getty Images.

Co-CEO of DLA Piper

Paul McMillan
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"We're an easy target": how a Tory manifesto pledge will tear families apart

Under current rules, bringing your foreign spouse to the UK is a luxury reserved for those earning £18,600 a year or more. The Tories want to make it even more exclusive. 

Carolyn Matthew met her partner, George, in South Africa sixteen years ago. She settled down with him, had kids, and lived like a normal family until last year, when they made the fateful decision to move to her hometown in Scotland. Matthew, 55, had elderly parents, and after 30 years away from home she wanted to be close to them. 

But Carolyn nor George - despite consulting a South African immigration lawyer – did not anticipate one huge stumbling block. That is the rule, introduced in 2012, that a British citizen must earn £18,600 a year before a foreign spouse may join them in the UK. 

“It is very dispiriting,” Carolyn said to me on the telephone from Bo’ness, a small town on the Firth of Forth, near Falkirk. “In two weeks, George has got to go back to South Africa.” Carolyn, who worked in corporate complaints, has struggled to find the same kind of work in her hometown. Jobs at the biggest local employer tend to be minimum wage. George, on the other hand, is an engineer – yet cannot work because of his holiday visa. 

To its critics, the minimum income threshold seems nonsensical. It splits up families – including children from parents – and discriminates against those likely to earn lower wages, such as women, ethnic minorities and anyone living outside London and the South East. The Migration Observatory has calculated that roughly half Britain’s working population would not meet the requirement. 

Yet the Conservative party not only wishes to maintain the policy, but hike the threshold. The manifesto stated:  “We will increase the earnings thresholds for people wishing to sponsor migrants for family visas.” 

Initially, the threshold was justified as a means of preventing foreign spouses from relying on the state. But tellingly, the Tory manifesto pledge comes under the heading of “Controlling Immigration”. 

Carolyn points out that because George cannot work while he is visiting her, she must support the two of them for months at a time without turning to state aid. “I don’t claim benefits,” she told me. “That is the last thing I want to do.” If both of them could work “life would be easy”. She believes that if the minimum income threshold is raised any further "it is going to make it a nightmare for everyone".

Stuart McDonald, the SNP MP for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East, co-sponsored a Westminster Hall debate on the subject earlier this year. While the Tory manifesto pledge is vague, McDonald warns that one option is the highest income threshold suggested in 2012 - £25,700, or more than the median yearly wage in the East Midlands. 

He described the current scheme as “just about the most draconian family visa rules in the world”, and believes a hike could affect more than half of British citizens. 

"Theresa May is forcing people to choose between their families and their homes in the UK - a choice which most people will think utterly unfair and unacceptable,” he said.  

For those a pay rise away from the current threshold, a hike will be demoralising. For Paul McMillan, 25, it is a sign that it’s time to emigrate.

McMillan, a graduate, met his American girlfriend Megan while travelling in 2012 (the couple are pictured above). He could find a job that will allow him to meet the minimum income threshold – if he were not now studying for a medical degree.  Like Matthew, McMillan’s partner has no intention of claiming benefits – in fact, he expects her visa would specifically ban her from doing so. 

Fed up with the hostile attitude to immigrants, and confident of his options elsewhere, McMillan is already planning a career abroad. “I am going to take off in four years,” he told me. 

As for why the Tories want to raise the minimum income threshold, he thinks it’s obvious – to force down immigration numbers. “None of this is about the amount of money we need to earn,” he said. “We’re an easy target for the government.”

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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