Diversity – leading by example

3 06 2013

The3rdimagazine is a magazine that, historically, has looked at business issues from a woman’s perspective. While the focus has widened to include co-operative, social and collaborative enterprises and to examine alternative business and economic models it is entirely appropriate that the main issue when we consider diversity here to look at issues such as the representation of women on boards.

However an issue that needs addressing, and quickly, is the lack of diversity at the very top of government in the UK.

A government report published by former Labour Minister Alan Milburn found that while fee paying schools educate just 7% of pupils in the UK they account for;

  • 59% of cabinet ministers
  • 35% of MP’s
  • 45% of senior civil servants
  • 80% of Supreme Court Judges
  • 43% of barristers
  • 54% of leading journalists.

While children of wealthy families have far greater access to opportunity than children from poor families, in everything from gap year internships to ski-ing holidays, education is supposed to be a great leveller. It is supposed to work in allowing children from disadvantaged backgrounds to succeed and to compete with their more advantaged peers. It is supposed to create a level playing field. Yet what we now see is the ability to reach the top dictated by what Warren Buffet has called, ‘The Lucky Sperm Club’. Put less prosaically, a society where who your parents are, and then the school they can afford to send you to, is the critical factor in determining your future success.

The lack of diversity amongst our decision makers, with the Prime Minister, Mayor of London, Chief Whip and even the Archbishop of Canterbury, to name but a few, being former pupils of Eton College not only impairs social mobility and perpetuates inequality, it mitigates against diversity due, not least, to confirmation bias.

Confirmation bias is is a tendency of people to favor information that confirms their beliefs. We all do it. I read newspaper articles and facebook posts and watch documentaries that are in line with my existing beliefs and opinions. Even when we do expose ourselves to alternative points of view, that too may be a form of confirmation bias; in that we seek to confirm that the opposition is, indeed, wrong.

Confirmation bias leads us when interviewing to chose candidates that are most like we are. Men are more likely to favour male candidates in the boardroom. This, not poor quality candidates or insufficient number of applicants, is the most likely factor that mitigates against getting more women into these senior positions. It is not necessary for confirmation bias to be conscious for it to work!

In her book, Willful Blindness, Margaret Heffernan argues that the biggest threats and dangers we face are the ones we don’t see – not because they’re secret or invisible, but because we’re willfully blind. We turn a blind eye in order to feel safe, to avoid conflict, to reduce anxiety and to protect prestige.

Both these phenomenon mitigate against increases in diversity. We chose to operate in ways which confirm our existing prejudices and we fail to see that which we choose not to see.

We know that confirmation bias exists so we must do what we can to work against our unconscious or subconscious prejudices. We know that we have a tendency to ignore issues that have the potential to cause conflict or unrest so we must do more to challenge existing structures and systems.

We must all lead by example when it comes to increasing diversity. In our businesses we need diversity. Board diversity helps provide balance to the maverick, testosterone fuelled decision-making processes that brought down the big four banks and other financial institutions. Employee engagement at all levels of the company, and yes at board level, would also be a major positive influence. What we need to create is an environment of rich cultural, gender and social diversity.

And what is true in businesses is just as true in our government. We need a more representative legislature; more women, more individuals who have experience in areas other than just politics and a very good place to start would be by employing fewer public schoolboys.