The perpetuating bias that women continue to ‘destroy the joint’

Picture of hand reaching across boardrom table.

The perpetuating bias that women continue to ‘destroy the joint’

By Grazia Pecoraro, Principal Consultant & Founder – Perspective Hive Diversity Consulting

Wow. Miranda Devine has taken a sample size of one to come to the conclusion that “diversity is not strength, after all” (Daily Telegraph, 2 May 2018, ‘A recipe for disaster’. Referencing only one company – the resignation of AMP’s Chair Catherine Brenner and decisions made by the board –  can by no means be viewed as statistically representative for drawing conclusions about anything, never mind a topic as complex as diversity and gender equality.

I’m not defending AMP’s conduct or any of the other unethical business practices being spotlighted by the Royal Commission into Misconduct in the Banking, Superannuation and Financial Services Industry. And no company should view this exposure smugly, because run a review like this into any industry and I am of the belief that not everyone will come out of it squeaky clean. But to suggest that the benefits sought by creating greater equality and inclusion for a range of people that aren’t just Anglo-Saxon, mostly older, males should be discredited as a “flawed” system is not a solution either.

What is the alternative, really?

I agree that diversity that is unmanaged, creates more conflict and tension in any human interaction, never mind in the fish bowls of corporate offices. Putting any people into positions they are not ready for, without relevant structures to support their development or break down the biases and barriers they may face, isn’t productive either.

But what is the alternative being proposed? Go back to the 1960s when women had to resign from their support function roles when they got married or got pregnant, if they were allowed to work at all? Or allow them into the workforce, but not challenge the systems, processes or attitudes that may be preventing them from equal participation in senior roles? Going backwards is not an option.

Our country’s oldest company is 200 years old. That’s a long time for corporate Australia to build the “rules” that the article alludes to. Rules that were made by and benefitted predominantly men, who in most cases had wives at home to do the housework and caring for children or elderly parents, while the cost of living was lower than it is now and families could live life on single incomes. The author of the Daily Telegraph article’s premise is that diversity programs have had 10 years to prove themselves but have failed. That’s only 10 years out of 200 to be given a chance to show some improvement (involving complex attitudinal and systemic change), with the reality being a glacial pace of change in many businesses and industries. Overall, our country’s gender pay gap is still at 15.3%, female board participation is only 27.1% (at March 2018) and only 11 out of the ASX 200 top companies have female CEOs.

And for those women who are steering boards and businesses, there’s a double standard in how their performance is measured as well as reported on in the media. In October 2016, Fortune published an article ‘The CEO Is to Blame for a Company in Crisis—But Only If She’s a Woman’. According to a study, by the Rockefeller Foundation and Global Strategy Group, 80% of press reports about female CEOs involved in a crisis cited the chief as the source of the problem. But when a man was at the helm, only 31% of stories blamed the CEO for the company’s issues. Really?  Yes, really. Which begs the question too in the AMP example that has been cited, what does collective board responsibility mean considering there are a number of men and women with deep commercial and insurance experience on it and what role did they cumulatively play in managing decisions and risks?

It’s not about blaming

There’s an increasing amount of good data out there, from various types of research (with sample sizes larger than one), that shows a strong link between diversity and business outcomes. KPMG Enterprises found that in 2016 female CEOs in the ASX 300+ delivered a 9% increase in revenue, compared to the group-wide average of 0.5%. Companies with women on their board achieved higher revenue growth, profitability and shareholder returns (‘ASX 300+ Report’, 2017). It’s not about the women only making a difference – it’s about the balance and diversity of opinions.  Forbes’ list of ‘The Worst CEO Screw-Ups of 2016’, provides a more balanced analysis of senior decision-making gone wrong, without the gender card being cited or made the scape-goat. It’s simply about people making bad calls and choices.

Diversity and inclusion as programs that drive deep attitudinal and cultural change is a complex interweaving of corporate structure, neuro-science, and vague, in many ways subjective concepts like ‘culture’ and ‘merit’. Moving forward is not about making males with a lot of experience wrong or blaming them. It’s about acknowledging there is a problem then taking a holistic view of what is expected of all leaders and the flow of information, not just the Chair or Directors. Deeply understanding the mechanics of decision-making and what happens when the status quo is challenged and not just giving information or answers the bosses want to hear.

The conversation should instead turn to understanding the machinations of diversity in thinking as evidenced through the quality of decision-making at all levels (who gets to have a say and what happens when they do). Integral to this is creating a workplace where psychological safety means people can speak up and challenge biases like group think and confirmation bias. Much easier said than done. While it’s not the only solution, it’s an important component in creating strong businesses where a myriad of complex interests can be fairly balanced and managed ethically and appropriately.

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