Overwhelmingly executives attending courses at the Centre for Ethical Leadership argue that any form of affirmative action is wrong because it involves positive discrimination that disadvantages other under-represented groups (such as gays, lesbians and different ethnic minorities) as well as men, and because it violates the principle of merit.
These were the arguments faced by an associate when he suggested to his CEO and colleagues on the executive committee that they consider the introduction of targets as part of their soon-to-be-released diversity strategy.
The top three levels of the company, 122 people, included 13 (10.7 per cent) women. The 10 members of the executive committee included one woman, the director of human resources who, like the CEO, opposed targets and quotas. Immediately below the executive level (levels 4 and 5), 38 per cent of the managers were women. Below that women were 52 per cent of the remaining workforce.
Here are some of the arguments my associate included in a paper that he subsequently put to the executive committee in an attempt to get their buy-in to gender targets. Targets would create a demand for women who are job-ready for more senior roles. They would motivate leaders to identify women who were potential future leaders and do what was needed to ensure that the processes surrounding the selection, development and promotion of women were not biased. This, he noted, would require a new mindset, one that asked, “How can I promote diversity and merit” to replace the current view that
“We can have diversity or merit, but not both”. As he noted, similar shifts in mindsets had occurred for quality and productivity and safety and productivity.
For companies like that of my associate, the challenge of increasing gender diversity in senior leadership roles will require strategies that draw women through the pipeline and maintain their engagement with the company. For other companies, the challenge might be to find new sources of supply.
For example, in Australia accounting firms recruit graduates with accounting degrees. In the UK, the same firms recruit arts and science graduates and teach them accounting. While many MBA students undertake their training in the hope of being recruited by a firm like McKinsey, the firm tasks talented graduates from any discipline and then trains them to be consultants.
We pride ourselves on being a socially aWare company Gender equality means equal access to opportunities and unbiased treatment of men and women. If we believe that men and women are equally capable of high performance in executive roles, then we must take measures that will effect this change, regardless of the potential for negative perceptions or backlash
Who’s doing it?
Company % of women by level outcome
- Qantas 45% by 2014. Executive 41% in 2012.
- ANZ 40% by 2011. Management 40% in 2011.
- BMW 13-15% by 2020. Company wide 8.8% in 2012.
- Rio Tinto 20% by 2015. Senior management 14% in 2010.
Why gender, what about other groups? To this he made three points.
First, if we were to accept that under-representation of women and other groups is a problem – which is why the executive committee was introducing a diversity policy – then they needed a focus. Second, at 50 per cent of the population and 43 per cent of their workforce, women are the largest of the under-represented groups and one with which they can expect to gain the most traction early. Third, if they could remove the barriers that were holding women back, they would also remove barriers for other under-represented groups.
Gender targets are good for company profitability
This utilitarian argument draws on an ever-increasing array of evidence, not just in Australia but internationally, which shows that companies with greater gender balance at the senior levels also tend to be more profitable. There is a diversity bonus associated with greater gender diversity.
Current recruitment practices are not meritocratic
On the claim that targets violate the principle of merit and therefore the rights of others, my associate made several arguments to his colleagues. First, the current system of testing and selecting people for more senior roles was biased against women, as evidenced by the large drop-off in the percentages of women at the more senior levels. Women were 50 per cent of the graduate program, and most of the managers and executives had entered the company through the graduate program or were university graduates who had started elsewhere. If men and women were equally matched at the entry level, then the processes of development and selection for senior roles was biased in favour of men.