Sign up for our newsletter
Follow us on

The backlash against diversity is coming: here’s how to avoid it

by Amanda Wilson
17 May 2016
BUSINESS AND PROFESSIONAL ETHICS
Backlash against the diversity movement is inevitable. Can we overcome it? Amanda Wilson suggests some strategies.

This article was originally posted on Linkedin. Read the original post here.

By any measure, the campaign to ensure more females are represented on ASX200 boards has gained momentum. With initiatives such as the Australian chapter of the 30% Club, Male Champions of Change and scholarship programs, gender diversity has never been more in vogue.

It is now de rigeur for white middle aged (or nudging late middle age) male success stories to hold forth on the need for women to do the following – be more confident; back themselves; network with movers and shakers; submit to mentorship by those movers and shakers; study STEM subjects, AND become more robust negotiators.
As soon as momentum for a particular cause builds it is inevitably followed by a backlash. So we should expect the same regarding gender diversity.
Of course, prominent women have long been boldly advocating on the topic of gender diversity. Among others, former Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Liz Broderick and former head of the WGEA, Helen Conway and made significant contributions.

LEARN MORE: Hear Holly Kramer, champion of diversity, discuss culture and leadership for Leading Edge. Tuesday, June 7th. Tickets here.

We have been raising diversity with chairs and other non-executive directors of ASX200 companies since our inception 15 years ago. Our hypothesis was never a particularly sexy one, nor was it confined to gender diversity. We advanced this modest proposal:
  • Boards and their companies will benefit from genuine diversity of thought
  • The full spectrum of diversity of thought may well reside in one narrow demographic (white, middle or late middle aged male, who probably went to private school and studied law or accounting) but it is unlikely to do so
  • In order to ensure cognitive and experiential diversity, boards may need to throw their search nets wider
  • If they do that, with the aim of ensuring diversity of thought, diversity of appearance/demographic in board make-up would usually be a by-product
  • In order to attract genuine diversity of thought, the corporate landscape itself must bend. Different people, at different stages of life, have different needs of their workplace). For example, training women to behave just like men clearly does not meet the ‘diversity of thought’ objective.
Since beginning these discussions we have contended with ‘pipeline theory’, unconscious bias, the threat of quotas, the ‘business case’ for more women, the inherent ‘difference’ between the brains of men and women and so on…

We have heard chairmen – some of whom are now Male Champions of Change – tell us that women cannot be equally represented at the upper echelons of corporate Australia ‘because they have babies’.

Does it really serve the diversity agenda to have an already over-committed woman (who thinks like a bloke anyway) get even more board seats?

This shouldn’t be especially surprising. We’ve worked on a range of large scale advocacy efforts and noted, with somewhat jaded eyes, that as soon as momentum for a particular cause builds it is inevitably followed by a backlash. So we should expect the same regarding gender diversity.

Several talented, experienced and thoughtful men have told us that, on applying for directorships, search firms have told them “we’d love to put you up, but you’re the wrong gender”. Others have asked, quite plaintively ‘does it really serve the diversity agenda to have an already over-committed woman (who thinks like a bloke anyway) get even more board seats?’ They have in mind the fact nearly 40% of the 89 directors appointed to S&P/ASX100 boards last year were women, but half of the new appointments already sit on another top 100 board.

One or two have noted that they have always been the breadwinner, a division of labour enthusiastically endorsed by their (educated) wives. Women who have now been out of the workforce for 20 years or so – but still have a greater chance of getting on a board than their still-working partners.

Several professional women – many of them who have elected to remain childless in pursuit of their careers – have also confided that they don’t want to see women parachuting into positions without having done the hard yards.

Many of these obstacles to diversity and objections to the way in which the diversity agenda is being prosecuted deserve attention. Within them lie the seeds for the aforementioned backlash. Advocates of diversity would be wise to address these seeds before their roots are able to grow.

If the process undermines the logic of merit, the backlash will be more severe. Being told you are the wrong gender (which has, of course, happened to many women as well) is likely to provoke feelings of injustice.

Unless we adopt a wholesale approach, we may not penetrate deeply enough into the status quo to avoid backlash.

Genuinely entrenching more diversity requires proper consideration and adjustment of the corporate landscape and addressing the not-so-hidden doubts held by powerful brokers in the system. That goes beyond insisting on hard numbers, and acknowledging both hard and soft systemic influences that run counter to diversity aims:
  • Antiquated child care arrangements
  • Attitudes to workplace flexibility (especially for men)
  • Entrenched and narrow ideals of leadership that impact both men and women who don’t conform with the norm
  • Rigid job parameters and definitions of performance – such as privileging competitiveness over collaboration
Failure to do so risks corroding faith in the real aims of diversity – the development of inclusive work practices leading to sustainable value creation and greater choice and breadth of opportunities for both men and women.

A focus on numbers and making ‘safe appointments’ is simply playing dangerously at the edges. Unless we adopt a wholesale approach, we may not penetrate deeply enough into the status quo to avoid backlash. Encouraging diversity of thought as the starting point may be an instrumental step into the thick of the diversity obstacles.

Amanda Wilson is Managing Director at Regnan. Image: Tim Gouw.

0 Comments

Comments
Blog post currently doesn't have any comments.
 Security code