Attention to progress towards inclusion in the UK workplace has been spearheaded, usefully, by public reviews conducted as independent, voluntary and business-led initiative supported by government, on diversity in FTSE-listed firms. While acknowledging that issues of equality, diversity and inclusion permeate all social systems (e.g. health, legal, education) such reviews offer an indicator of our progress (or lack thereof) towards achieving equality as a nation.
Of the many dimensions of social diversity and indicators of progress, gender representation is often used as a primary indicator, with the topic of women’s representation in leadership (senior executive and board roles) of focal interest for over two decades. The Hampton-Alexander Review (of which the fifth and final report was published in February 2021), and the body of work predating it (including the Davies Review and Female FTSE report by Cranfield University) have charted significant progress in the overall proportion of women holding board and other leadership positions across the FTSE 350.
In 2016 the Hampton-Alexander Review set a target of 33% women in leadership and on boards. Five years later FTSE 350 boards have met, and exceeded the target on average. While this progress is to be lauded, the Hampton-Alexander Review urges attention beyond headline figures if our ultimate aim is gender-balanced power distribution. While the proportion of women on boards is 36.2% for the FTSE 100 and 33.2% for the FTSE 250, this falls to 26.5% for executive committee positions and only 21.7% for the equivalent in FTSE 250 firms.
The evidenced number of women on boards is thus heavily influenced by non-executive director roles, with the pace of change indicated by headline figures not replicated within organisations. The Hampton-Alexander Review shows us that the pipeline into senior executive roles has not had the same degree of fluidity for women, and with this comes a knock-on effect for other routes to gender equality; in his foreword, Sir Philip Hampton points out that as “executive positions… carry far higher pay than non-executive directors, so the gender disparities inevitably contribute to substantial gender pay gaps in most boards and leadership teams”.
Measurable targets for diversity progress
Despite the final publication of the Review, its authors are at pains to point out the work on gender equality in UK plc is not yet “done”. Considerations for ongoing progress are offered including moving aspirational targets from the current 33% to 40%, both at board and executive levels, with a targeted focus on the executive pipeline. Further, with this targeted focus, the Review urges businesses to push change in substantive rather than symbolic positions, by encouraging women’s greater representation in the powerful board roles of chair, CEO, CFO and senior independent director.
Turning to ethnicity as another diversity dimension, the work as part of the government-backed Review into Ethnicity on UK boards led by Sir John Parker also began in 2016. While reasonably well-received by the UK public from its inception, the social justice uprising spurred by the Black Lives Matter campaign in the summer of 2020 catalysed a focus on race and ethnicity in the workplace. Consequently, there appears to be an upsurge in organisations’ willingness to engage in charting race and ethnicity representation within their boards.
In early 2021, the Parker Review reported a record-breaking number of responses to the government-led inquiry into the ethnic make-up of their organisations. Over the course of 2020, the number of FTSE 100 companies with ethnic minority representation on their boards increased from 52 to 74. This year is the deadline for Parker’s “One by ‘21” target and as of March, an additional seven companies have met this.
Thus, in recent years, the Hampton-Alexander and Parker Reviews have demonstrated the power of voluntary, business-led, government-backed targets to achieve measurable changes in diversifying the leadership of the largest companies in the country (with more apparent momentum towards gender balance). Further, having stated targets affords key actors and gatekeepers such as chairs of selection committees and executive search consultants the legitimacy to probe into the diversity of long and short lists, and affords board members the space to be open about expanding their personal understanding of diversity and drive culture change.
Diversity fluency and the meritocracy myth
However, despite the headline progress in diversity at board level representation, a more academic-critical lens is required to see past “quick wins” for longer-term, sustainable change towards equity. For example, the perception of progress is disrupted by the research released by Green Park in early 2021 indicating that there are no longer any Black chairs, CEOs or CFOs in the FTSE 100. Such disappointing underrepresentation has been attributed to organisations’ hesitation to disaggregate the term ‘BAME’ (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) to address the variations in lived experience and professional outcomes for those of different minority ethnicities.
In our recent experiences (such as social media response following a recent appearance on Newsnight by one of the authors), the term “BAME” is falling increasingly out of favour as a label for those typically identified as such. As we develop our diversity fluency as a nation, it is important to evolve with language, acknowledging that identities and demographic categories are fluid and “social constructions” masking divergent patterns across social groups. Thus, there remains progress to be made with regards to eliciting the nuances in experiences and outcomes for different racial minorities if we are to progress and drive national discussion and accountability.
In our advisory roles, we have worked with many corporate leaders keen to increase their diversity fluency while being active allies for gender and ethnicity and getting to grips with the “meritocracy myth”. The meritocracy myth, simplified, challenges the idea that those who have successfully emerged at the top of the career ladder attained their positions solely due to innate hard work; the myth downplays the significant structural advantage afforded by such characteristics as gender, able-bodiedness and access to “cultural capital” through education and family background.
Further, our research for the Financial Reporting Council on ethnic diversity reporting at board level observed and challenged the prevailing narrative in board annual reports that diversity and meritocracy are “at odds” with each other. We wrote about why this notion is problematic and will hinder progress. For further progress in diversity at executive and board levels, business should reconceptualise a lack of proportional representation as evidence of a non-merit based and biased system.
Intersectionality and multiple identities
Further progress needs to be made in diversity on boards with regards to the single identity, siloed thinking organisations often adopt towards diversity. Tackling representation through individual diversity strands limits the opportunity to examine experiences, outcomes and representation for those of intersecting minority and underrepresented identities (e.g. women of colour or people of colour who identify as Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans or Intersex).
Such “intersectional thinking” is required because stereotypes and barriers (and therefore solutions) are different for women depending on their race (i.e., a White woman compared to a Black woman) and different for minority ethnic professionals depending on their race and gender (i.e., an Indian man compared to a woman of Caribbean ethnicity).
Viewing progress through the lens of intersectionality will help organisations to shed light on “invisible” groups often overlooked in “gender work” and “race work”. Encouragingly, the 30% Club has recently updated its action plan to include women of colour, and the Parker Review spotlights the gender difference in numbers of directors of colour on boards; this suggests that we are moving in the right direction.
Overall, while maintaining and publishing a gender and ethnic index for leadership has enabled progress in diversity, the work extends beyond meeting headline targets because the “equality problem” to be fixed is not “underrepresentation” per se; progress towards representation risks being thwarted if we conflate under-representation with systemic inequalities and oppression.
Yes, underrepresentation can indicate marginalisation; however, proportionality is not equivalent to power equity. The work remains, on multiple intersectional identity fronts, to achieve equity, especially with regards to access to and distribution of power in our largest organisations.
Doyin Atewologun is an organisational psychologist and director of leadership and inclusion consultancy Delta Alpha Psi. Fatima Tresh is a business psychologist and consultant at Delta Alpha Psi.