• Vicky Grinnell-Wright

Investors issue companies an Inclusion Red Warning

Updated: Jun 6, 2019

On Monday of this week The Guardian reported on Investor warnings issued to 100 high-profile big firms. The warning was issued across multiple sectors and it concerned the lack of progress towards gender diversity within these firms. 

20 companies received ‘red warnings’ and, according to the report, a further 74 firms, where women account for less than 25% of the board, have been issued with an amber warning. Included in the amber list were: Glencore, Metro Bank, Centrica and Ocado. 

Disappointingly, some of the early corporate responses appeared to offer underwhelming sentiment around ‘making efforts’ to ‘’address the issue’. Language matters and I am not surprised by the lack of progress; ‘making efforts’ is hardly the same as being utterly and unwaveringly committed to something. The intention and commitment itself appears to be lukewarm and furthermore the metaphor of ‘pushing’ more women into the Boardroom may be well-intended and yet, is still unhelpful. Do we want to be pushed into the Boardroom by a kindly (or under duress) gent? I don’t! I would like to step into the boardroom, on merit, following a fair process to get me to the doorway. 

Foxtons reportedly said it has made “promising progress” over the past 12 month, having hired a woman to lead the HR department and appointing another in a senior director role to oversee its gender pay parity initiatives. The challenge with this being hailed as ‘promising progress’ is that having a female lead an HR function is far from ground-breaking and the supposition that a female leading on gender parity issues is somehow a positive signal, perhaps shows how far we still have to travel on mindset change. Having a lead on this work is a positive.  Making a point regarding the gender of that role holder as a signal of progress is less encouraging.  

In all areas of diversity and inclusion (gender is just a sub group of this endemic challenge around how we welcome, respect and include ‘others’) we frequently find the burden of change passed on (down?) to the affected group - in this case the affected group is Women. On this point of who qualifies as ‘other’, June Sarpong’s book ‘Diversify’ is an excellent read. Being ‘othered’ is more than a gender issue and we have to stop leaving the burden of change on those most affected, be that by gender, race, educational or class background, or any other codified difference. 

It is, however, genuine progress to see the investor community now playing it’s part to pressure organisations to change. Helpfully, there is a degree of enlightened self-interest in play as investors reflect upon the evidence base for change: Put simply, diverse boards are outperforming those who are stuck with homogeneity. Investors have a major role to play in all aspects of corporate governance and the extent to which firms are compelled to act in the aligned interests of employees, customers, suppliers, society and the now fragile environment. 

Part of the barrier to progress is that the stated ambitions and intentions of an organisation can be misaligned to the operating systems, processes and tools that create and maintain the organisational status quo. Policy changes are not the same as sinking deep into the cultural and structural defaults and biases of an organisations leadership team, or into the methods by which decisions are taken around hiring, performance or remuneration. There is a palpable values-action gap and no amount of unconscious bias training can reverse these mega muscles that keep the boardrooms white, male and with a penchant for the name John. Put simply, creating the conditions for these laudable intentions to become the evidenced new normal requires attention, as well as intention.