With the global economic meltdown in full swing there is a very real danger that diversity and inclusion initiatives will move to the bottom of the to-do-list.
With increasing numbers of companies laying off people and most employers severely tightening their belts, there is a risk that diversity will be considered a ‘nice-to-do’ rather than a business priority. It is my belief that in fact the absolute opposite is true.
There has been much debate in the media and elsewhere about whether women are more adversely affected by the recession than men. As yet the data is inconclusive and rather contradictory. What is true is that the employment landscape is both volatile and changing at a phenomenal pace, so it is too early to say whether women or men will be the worst hit.
The fact is women, recession or not, face more barriers and obstacles in the workplace than men; and this is not good for women, nor is it good for business.
There has never been a more important time to prioritise diversity and inclusion. In essence, creating diverse and inclusive workplaces is about engaging with employees and ensuring they know they matter as individuals. It is about making sure that as an organisation you can tap into the highest calibre of talent, gain fresh perspectives and innovate.
In times of hardship, engaging and motivating your employees is crucial if you want to drive business and succeed. In fact, the recession allows organisations the opportunity to put current workplace practices under the microscope and challenge received wisdom. Many workplaces are still designed around a mid-20th century lifestyle, with an outdated approach to where, when and how work happens.
We work with our membership of more than 350 employers to speed up the pace of diversity and encourage employers to see work as an activity not a place, judge people on performance not presenteeism, and develop a work culture that maximises innovation and creativity.
It is heartening to see that so many organisations that have talked about the business case for equality and diversity in good times are still prioritising it in this difficult time. Opportunity Now runs an awards programme which recognises UK employers that have demonstrated the most commitment and innovation in creating workplaces where women can succeed.
The awards, held last month, showed that equality and diversity has definitely not fallen off the to-do list. City firms are still working to address the issues for women within their workplaces, with PricewaterhouseCoopers winning two awards and Goldman Sachs and Citi also scooping a prize.
The importance of leadership and the crucial role that leaders play in creating inclusive cultures was evident in all the winning initiatives. Chief superintendent Phil Kay, of West Midlands Police, was recognised for his work on diversity in his department and ensuring it is celebrated and valued – women now hold 33% of senior management positions on his team.
Both Alliance Trust and Pearson were recognised for the number of women on their boards. Alliance Trust has a board that is 43% female (women currently make up only 11.7% of FTSE 100 boards). Pearson is the only FTSE 100 company to have two women executive directors (women currently hold only 4.8% of executive directorships in the top companies).
London Fire Brigade won an award for its scheme to increase the number of women in leadership positions, while BT won the Premier Employer award for its exceptional commitment to diversity.
So despite the difficult times, organisations and business leaders recognise that by making their organisation better for women they are making their organisation better, full stop; and reaping the business benefits that accompany this.