Diversity in business: part I

3 October 2016

The issue for debate is diversity and its relation to trust and performance. Trust – and I believe performance – are enhanced if customers and employees know that they will be treated fairly.

I believe everyone should be respected, and should receive treatment according to their individual contribution, not according to preconceptions linked to their sexual and/or racial group or any other characteristic. Here, however, I will concentrate on women because of my own background and my experience in the boardroom and, since 2014, as a Minister.

I will start by looking backwards. 150 years ago, women were excluded from large parts of economic life. The transformation since then has been incredible. Overall there are now 14.6 million women in work, more than ever before. In the last 6 years, the FTSE 350 has seen a tremendous increase in the number of women at the top levels of business.

However, 16 boards in the 350 are still all male; and women only count for 7 per cent of Executive Directors. So there is more to do.

For this reason it is vital that we shift our focus to the talent pipeline and seek improved representation for women in the executive layer. This will also help ensure a sustainable talent pool for both executive and non-executive positions in the future.

My first job was in the Civil Service Fast Stream. I chose the Civil Service over my other options partly because of its positive attitude to women. Young female graduates thankfully now have a much wider range of sympathetic employers from which to choose.

By improving the representation of women, an organisation gets the benefit of a diversity of perspectives closer to its customer base. Where there are several women at the top it changes the culture in a subtle and advantageous way – a single woman director can feel isolated and uncomfortable, as I can vouchsafe personally.

As a Conservative I believe in choice. We should not expect all women’s ambitions to be the same. But if women want to work, and the vast majority do, then access to flexible working conditions, a good boss, and a good statutory framework can make the difference between happiness and real difficulties.

Baroness Neville-Rolfe DBE CMG, Minister of State for Energy and Intellectual Property, Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy

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