Progress isn't exactly rapid, but we are seeing signs of positive change. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Why gender diversity is about more than equality

A recent 12-country study of 393 companies found that women are still largely outnumbered in the non-executive director community, but found that the gender mix is improving.

Promoting diversity is not only morally positive, it makes perfect business sense. To draw on different backgrounds and experiences is to challenge the notion that one culture, behaviour, structure and practice is the right direction to take. It’s a healthy, constructive way of doing business that can deliver greater productivity and profitability

"Diversity" also takes many forms, and is never far from public scrutiny. Just recently, the World Economic Forum (WEF)’s annual meeting in Davos suffered a media outcry at the lack of women delegates, despite the forum’s best efforts to attract a diverse pool.

WEF’s purpose being to improve the state of the world by helping shape the international business agenda, it’s important that the ideas and issues as part of it are mixed - otherwise it quickly becomes a club where people think more and more alike. It’s exactly the same situation within organisations today. While short-term objectives can often be met by a group of similar people (who are naturally aligned and don’t need to be taught how to operate together), generating sustainable, long-term success requires more. Effective boards and teams need diversity for innovation and time and management to make the different opinions workable.

The gender discussions at Davos are mirrored in the Hay Group’s recent report Non-executive directors in Europe 2013, based on a 12-country annual study of 393 of Europe’s largest-quoted companies. However, while the study shows that women are still largely outnumbered in the non-executive director (NED) community, it also highlights how the gender mix is improving. In the last three years the proportion of male board directors has dropped from 87 to 80 percent. Within this, some countries are moving faster than others. Italian companies, for example, though they remain bottom of the league for gender diversity, have made comparatively great strides, moving from 94 per cent male directors last year to 89 per cent this year.

While the NED community is not responsible for running firms, they are highly influential in terms of challenging and contributing to overarching strategies and in ensuring ethical standards of conduct are met in the pursuit of corporate objectives. It’s vital, therefore, that they represent a broad range of thinking which is often acquired through a more diverse group of people.

However, while women are securing more NED roles, the study shows they still earn less than their male counterparts. Two years ago the average pay gap was seven per cent. Last year it was nine and this year it has risen to 10 per cent. How can this be? Well, NEDs are paid fees for being members of the board, and typically get extra fees for chairing or belonging to other board committees, such as audit, remuneration and nominations. Women are even more underrepresented on these committees than they are on the boards (more than half of European companies don’t have a single woman on the audit committee, and the same holds true for remuneration committees). As a result, they end up earning less than their male peers and, crucially, the committees driving much of the board agenda do not benefit from diverse viewpoints.

Gender might grab the headlines, but diversity is a far broader issue. Boards are becoming diverse in a number of ways, driven by the reality that we are all getting more and more international. Fewer directors, 66 per cent at the median, are from the same country of company listing or headquarters; a fall of three percent on last year. Countries like Switzerland, the Netherlands and the UK, which are very open to international trade, often have half the board with an international profile. We’re talking gradual change here, but this does show a movement towards an increasingly healthy combination of ethnic, cultural, educational and professional backgrounds being funnelled into the leadership, strategy and direction of organisations.

So while progress can hardly be described as rapid, and the gender pay gap still needs bridging, we are now seeing signs of change. Just as WEF is likely to take a hard look at how it attracts a wider  audience at Davos in 2015, companies need to consciously consider and examine the formation of its teams. It won’t always be plain sailing - different views naturally lead to disparity and debate. However, the potential gains in terms of scrutinising behaviour in business, challenging perceptions, curbing excess in certain sectors and encouraging wider change across companies to improve working life, reward and benefit for all, are well worth the effort.

Carl Sjostrom is the Hay Group's Regional Director, Executive Reward, Europe

Photo: Getty
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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