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Vive la difference


As a young woman starting out on a trading floor in the early ‘90s, I was always aware of being different. The archetypal male-dominated environment, diverse role models were infrequent, and establishing a professional network was tough – these were the days before LinkedIn.

The challenge of making everyone feel included became a conscious part of my thinking early on and it has stayed with me as I have grown my career, first within the City and most recently as a non-executive director and tech founder of Rungway. Innovation has been the other constant force throughout my career, founding a breakthrough portfolio management system (Credit Delta) at UBS, to encouraging innovation ideas from employees across the firm as a non-executive director and Chairman of Innovation at Aberdeen Asset Management. The intersection of these two forces, inclusion and innovation, is now more exciting and crucial than ever. The talent space itself is ripe for disruption. Most companies are not even close to properly harnessing new opportunities coming from the Cloud, from mobile technology, and from exploiting the insights to be found in Big Data. Many people still consider these as “nice to haves”. They aren’t, they will force companies to change the way they think. A prime example is gender pay gaps and the incoming requirement for mandatory reporting. As a recent study from the IFS (Institute for Fiscal Studies) has shown, when it comes to pay, many companies are far away from gender parity. Often the response is to shrug shoulders and for companies to argue that they do pay equally for equal roles. The problem is just that women are over-represented in lower paying roles, and (sometimes significantly) under-represented in the highest paying roles. Or perhaps lower pay is a matter of choice, due to childcare responsibilities.

However, this kind of thinking misses the point. Latest figures from the Office of National Statistics show that unemployment is currently at a ten year low, marking the shift to a candidate-led job market. Why would future female graduates reading a reported gender pay gap choose to apply to work for your company? Companies will have to justify this pay gap over time. A recent survey of 2,000 UK workers we conducted also revealed that over the past 12 months, 28 percent of men received a pay rise, compared to just 21 percent of women. It is not just about attracting talent; it is about retaining it; the annual published pay gap can be demotivating to your current staff. Regarding childcare, while flexibility is increasingly important to many, innovations in agile working mean it should no longer explain a systemic pay difference. It’s worth remembering that many women have satisfactory childcare arrangements or do not have children. Companies face a much higher bar of media scrutiny and social expectations for these issues, from both the customers and stakeholders they serve. Boards are accountable for career progression and opportunity within their companies, so they need to accept that there is a more complex set of factors affecting wellbeing, gender and other diversity issues, and must act more boldly and creatively to accelerate change. HR’s role in this journey is paramount: to ensure the company has the right insights. Push back against a list of reasons why you probably could not or should not gather the data you need and utilise new technologies which yield daily insights. Once you have it, think about how to use it – your data is only powerful if people and actions are influenced by it. For example, when you prepare pay data tables for your remuneration committee, small changes in how you present the data make a big difference. Highlighting your diverse communities within the overall list also highlights gaps and provokes thought. Similarly, proportionality is also of key importance. If 30 percent of the VP population are from a specific diversity group, for example, then at least 30 percent of the candidates for Director promotion should also be from that group.

This is not about setting quotas, but using information to make sure there is visibility and transparency at each step of your thinking and process. Setting internal targets, where you can then compare department by department, are important to expose where the cracks are and to call out those practices or collective blind-spots that are hindering progress. Healthy competition helps raise the bar for everyone, reviewing starting salaries, performance rating distributions, and discretionary variable pay for any signs of unconscious bias. High potential populations and other talent pipelines are a fantastic opportunity to be progressive and take some risk. A good way to de-sensitise certain topics is to change processes to include a measurement or a comment in every report. For example, if you want to focus on “culture” but not single out one department, ensure that every internal audit report includes a “culture” assessment – no exceptions. The other issue is how to uncover employee sentiment and concerns deep within and across companies. Our research exposed underlying problems at work that are not being addressed. Regarding gender, one in five (20 percent) women will not ask for help on workplace issues for fear of being seen as a pest, compared to just 14 percent of men. In terms of wellbeing, one-in-five (19 percent) workers say that work issues affect their sleep every week. These problems have a major impact on productivity and employee engagement.

To resolve this and better support diverse communities, HR directors need to invest in platforms that foster a culture of collaboration and support. Other innovations in talent management aim to capture employee feedback regularly, giving managers a view on present performance. Unless you understand, you cannot act. It’s not about monitoring either, it’s about listening and making changes for the better. No-one succeeds by standing still. Take millennials, for example. Some do not know what to do when they get no feedback from their manager, when the real issue is an expectation mismatch about what frequency is realistic. Some employees may have grown up with “a quarterly catch-up” but millennials can get anxious if they have not heard something for a week. It is also surprising how different generations respond quite differently to certain topics. For example, a lady I mentor asked if the right response to an invitation to an all-male panel event was to boycott it and encourage others to do the same. My advice was that this is self-destructive and rather than closing down an opportunity to learn and build her network, she should attend, ask questions, socialise and volunteer to join the panel next time. In my experience, panel organisers will welcome diverse speakers in a heartbeat. Yet, when this question was put out more broadly, there is again discrepancy between generations. While Gen X and Baby Boomers gave feedback that this opportunity should just be embraced, most Millennials and Gen Zs were more militant and voted to boycott.

Different groups also approach giving and seeking help differently: the research found that 15 percent of men asking for advice on a weekly basis compared to just ten percent of women. Women lack confidence. In my role as a tech entrepreneur, I have seen this with my very own eyes. More women than men post anonymously on certain topics Introverts also show different behaviours in how they answer questions. These dynamics are vital for understanding your company and your workforce. Ask yourself – what are you doing to ensure nobody feels a nuisance in asking for help? How are you providing support for the most-discussed and crucial issues? Have you empowered all your people, regardless of location, to access a global pool of support? Bringing all this together is personal accountability at the managerial and executive committee level. If they talk about inclusion, what behaviours do they demonstrate themselves in their own appointments and practices? It can be a big challenge to find diverse candidates to fill certain specialist roles, but it is not impossible, and it is certainly possible to grow them. This can easily be achieved through micro succession plans: writing an action plan to develop the skills and experience you can give someone to support their longer term potential, rather than just considering immediate promotion readiness. Think about which intermediate roles will give them the profile, experience and track record they will need, rather than only focusing on the roles they can fulfil now. HR partners are uniquely placed to challenge and enlighten managers and boards in accelerating culture change to create inclusive and diverse environments, and a workplace of continual learning. This is the time to place fresh thinking right at the heart of your talent strategy.

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