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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In focusing on the famous few, we risk doing a disservice to all victims of child sexual abuse

There is a danger that we make it harder, not easier, for victims to come forward in future. 

Back in the 1970s when relations between journalists and police were somewhat different to today a simple ritual would be carried out around the country at various times throughout the week.

Reporters, eager for information for their regional newspaper, would take a trip to the local station and there would be met by a desk sergeant who would helpfully skim through details in the crime Incident Book.

Among the entries about petty thefts, burglaries and road accidents there would occasionally be a reference to an allegation of incest. And at this point the sergeant and journalist might well screw-up their faces, shake their heads and swiftly move on to the next log. The subject was basically taboo, seen as something ‘a bit mucky,’ not what was wanted in a family newspaper.

And that’s really the way things stayed until 1986 when ChildLine was set up by Dame Esther Rantzen in the wake of a BBC programme about child abuse. For the first time children felt able to speak out about being sexually assaulted by the very adults whose role in life was to protect them.

And for the first time the picture became clear about what incest really meant in many cases. It wasn’t simply a low level crime to be swept under the carpet in case it scratched people’s sensitivities. It frequently involved children being abused by members of their close family, repeatedly, over many years.

Slowly but surely as the years rolled on the NSPCC continued to press the message about the prevalence of child sexual abuse, while encouraging victims to come forward. During this time the corrosive effects of this most insidious crime have been painfully detailed by many of those whose lives have been derailed by it. And of course the details of the hundreds of opportunistic sexual assaults committed by Jimmy Savile have been indelibly branded onto the nation’s consciousness.

It’s been a long road - particularly for those who were raped or otherwise abused as children and are now well into their later years - to bring society around to accepting that this is not to be treated as a dark secret that we really don’t want to expose to daylight. Many of those who called our helpline during the early days of the Savile investigation had never told anyone about the traumatic events of their childhoods despite the fact they had reached retirement age.

So, having buried the taboo, we seem to be in danger of giving it the kiss of life with the way some cases of alleged abuse are now being perceived.

It’s quite right that all claims of sexual assault should be investigated, tested and, where there is a case, pursued through the judicial system. No one is above the law, whether a ‘celebrity’ or a lord.

But we seem to have lost a sense of perspective when it comes to these crimes with vast resources being allocated to a handful of cases while many thousands of reported incidents are virtually on hold.

The police should never have to apologise for investigating crimes and following leads. However, if allegations are false or cannot be substantiated they should say so. This would be a strength not a weakness.

It is, of course, difficult that in many of the high-profile cases of recent times the identities of those under investigation have not been officially released by the police but have come to light through other means. Yet we have to deal with the world as it is not as we wish it would be and once names are common knowledge the results of the investigations centring on them should be made public.

When it emerges that someone in the public eye is being investigated for non-recent child abuse it obviously stirs the interest of the media whose appetite can be insatiable. This puts pressure on the police who don’t want to repeat the mistakes of the past by allowing offenders to slip through their hands.  And so there is a danger, as has been seen in recent cases, that officers lack confidence in declaring there is a lack of evidence or the allegations are not true. 

The disproportionate weight of media attention given to say, Sir Edward Heath, as opposed to the Bradford grooming gang sentenced this week, shows there is a danger the pendulum is swinging too far the other way. This threatens the painstaking work invested in ensuring the public and our institutions recognise child abuse as a very real danger. 

Whilst high profile cases have helped the cause there is now a real risk that the all-encompassing focus on them does both victims of abuse and those advocating on their behalf a fundamental disservice.

As the public watches high -profile cases collapsing amidst a media fanfare genuine convictions made across the country week in week out go virtually unannounced. If this trend continues they may start to believe that child sexual abuse isn’t the prolific problem we know it to be.

So, while detectives peer into the mists of time, searching for long lost clues, we have to face the unpalatable possibility that offences being committed today will in turn only be investigated fully in years or decades' time because there is not the manpower to deal with them right now.

So, now the Goddard Inquiry is in full swing, taking evidence about allegations of child sex crimes involving ‘well known people’ as well as institutional abuse, how do we ensure we don’t fail today’s victims?

If they start to think their stories are going to be diminished by the continuing furore over how some senior public figures have been treated by the police they will stay silent. Therefore we have to continue to encourage them to come forward, to give them the confidence of knowing they will be listened to.

If we don’t we will find ourselves back in those incestuous days where people conspired to say and do nothing to prevent child abuse.

Peter Wanless is Chief Executive of the NSPCC.