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Adversity + Diversity, an unlikely pairing?

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Alexandra Baskerville

Adversity + Diversity, an unlikely pairing? 

by Aleandra Baskerville, partner, river partnership*

The non-discriminatory nature of most infectious diseases makes them socio-economic levellers, but COVID-19 has gone one step further. Seemingly overnight, business operations have immeasurably changed, and our personal priorities have totally shifted. Amidst the doom of unprecedented market constriction, there have been innumerate positive examples of companies bringing their most creative and solution-oriented ideas to market in record timeframes; Dyson designed a new ventilator in just 10 days, Ford, GM, and Tesla are collaborating to produce ventilators for GE and Google and Apple are pooling resources on contact tracing efforts for COVID-19. These examples of service and product diversification should be celebrated, but we should not miss the opportunity to look inwardly too. COVID-19 will have a lasting impact on all our lives and notwithstanding the tragedy, it gives us the opportunity to affect positive change in areas like sustainability, climate change and even the age-old gender diversity conundrum.

In a recent Chief Executive Webinar hosted by AlixPartners, I was struck by a sanguine reference to The Stockdale Paradox which encourages one to confront the most brutal facts of the current reality, whatever they might be… There are some brutal realities on the topic of Chief Executive gender diversity:

The latest UK government backed Alexander-Hampton review triumphantly states that in 2020 the FTSE 100 has met the target of 33% women holding board positions. *Pause for applause* BUT, if you investigate these statistics more closely, you will also see that only 5% of the current FTSE 100 CEOs are women. The FTSE 250 is even further behind, with just 2% of businesses being led by a female CEO. Based on widely available information, this tells us two stark truths:

  • Despite diversity entering the everyday business lexicon, since 2012 the number of female FTSE 100 CEOs has increased by just one (from four to five).
  • At the current rate, it may take in excess of 80 years for women achieve gender equality at CEO level.

Within the context of Europe, worryingly these figures look quite positive; consider that Europe’s most valuable software company SAP has abruptly parted with Jennifer Morgan. Ms Morgan was the first, and only, woman to lead a DAX-listed business. I know… depressed yet? How are we still getting the quotas so wrong?

One truism I have come to live by is the notion that you cannot do the same thing and expect different results. Daniel Kahneman’s book “Thinking, Fast and Slow” plainly illustrates that it takes conscious effort not to revert to type. Without taking away from the tragic context, the coronavirus pandemic has provided a watershed moment; I doubt we will get another chance to review our working protocols and thereby directly influence the diversity of our future CEOs. A lack of maternity leave and/or scarce consideration for the caring responsibilities of dependants are often reasons for women exiting the workforce. I appreciate it is an uncomfortable societal narrative, but as a young career-driven woman, it can feel like an either/or decision about work and/or motherhood. Digital advancement has already dispelled many myths about working from home; right across the world institutions are making the most of digital communication tools when travel was thought to be the only option.

In recent weeks I have had the opportunity to talk with many CEOs of blue-chip businesses and without exception, their attitudes to remote working have been totally revised. Unfortunately, it has taken a pandemic to shift modus operandi and highlight what the younger generations have always known, that remote working can be just as effective. Post-COVID-19, wouldn’t it be logical for the leaders of today to continue to use the advances of technology to allow a wider range of people – particularly women – to participate more actively throughout the entirety of their careers? Of course, digital working can never replace real world interaction, but in the epoch of automation and robotic advancement, let us not forget the various mechanisms that enable us to get the best out of our precious human capital. Truly embracing flexible working in your business can alleviate pressure on working families and ultimately unlock the cap on the number of female CEOs.

Rather than ask women to govern in the image of men, it is time to acknowledge that women’s leadership styles are different and beneficial. As Avivah Wittenberg-Cox put it, it’s time we recognised the powerful potential of gender diversity in positions of leadership and elect more women. I would add, let us create the working environment to increase the talent pool of women we can elect in the first place!


*This article was first published at river partnership : 


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