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Brands Must Scale Up Diversity – and Fast – If They Want to Remain Relevant

Image credit: The Crowd

“Women challenge the status quo because we never are it.”

Addressing a (thankfully) diverse audience of sustainability professionals in London, UK, last month at an event hosted by The Crowd, Cindy Gallop -– a global activist for the gender equality movement -– pulled no punches in reminding business leaders why women are essential to making corporations fit for a better world.

“If you start any business today with an all-white-male founding team, you will never own the future,” she warned. Arguing that diversity is “business-critical” –- and that includes diversity on all levels: race, ethnicity and sexuality, as well as gender –- Gallop said that true disruptive innovation happens when a multitude of different perspectives and insights come together to fuse creative, constructive dialogue.

The link between diversity and success is well documented. Just earlier this year, a study by McKinsey found that UK companies with 10 percent higher gender and racial diversity in their management teams have a 6 percent higher profit before tax. “There’s a lot of money to be made out of taking women seriously,” Gallop maintained.

And this doesn’t just apply to internal workforces. Externally, it is thought that women represent the majority of purchasers, and the majority of influencers of purchase, in every single product category, including those thought to be traditionally male. It’s a trend that hasn’t gone unnoticed by Telefonica O2’s CEO Ronan Dunne, who says there is a compelling business case behind his company’s diversity drive.

“In the UK, I think 80 percent of consumer goods purchasing is done by women,” he told delegates. “I have 25 million customers – if I want to perform in this market where’s there scarcity of capital, competition for customers ... then I’ve got to be in the business of making sure I can match the best talent to the best opportunities our business has. If my business doesn’t look, feel and act like the market it’s trying to excel in, then it has little chance of doing that.”

He added: “The challenge, the presumption, is we’re in a technology and engineering business and therefore serving a male need. The reality is we’re in the experience business, and that generally is more focused on a broader and diverse target group. We’ve outperformed our marketplace pretty much every quarter for the last ten years and that’s because we’ve managed to create the conditions in which more people feel we’re a relevant brand to them.”

“You need to create the conditions in the work environment where people can be their best self, and recognize that’s not the same for everybody,” Dunne observed. “If you work on one element of diversity, you create an environment where you’re more conscious of the others and it has a catalytic effect.”

Meanwhile, Sky’s internal diversity drive aims to first nail issues around gender equality.

“The whole gamut of diversity is really important to us at Sky, so what we’ve chosen to do is supercharge women to try and move the dial significantly and faster in that area before moving elsewhere,” Bella Vuillermoz, Sky’s director for women in leadership, told delegates. “We expect the change in numbers to take some time; one-third of the top 500 [employees at Sky] are women at the moment – we want to get to 50/50 which is quite a big challenge. You need leadership from the top, but you also need a groundswell within the organization and particularly at line management level as well.”

So, on a practical level, how does this work? What steps can businesses take to promote diversity? Empowerment programs and mentoring are obvious examples, but smaller steps such as marketing a more inclusive recruitment process can really help. “How you write that ad will determine who applies for the job,” Dunne said. “The fact that we insist on having on gender-balanced shortlists when we recruit externally ... simple things like that can make a difference.”

Gallop advised delegates to engage in a series of micro-actions – small actions that are easy to implement: “Say what you think. This is the core tenet of activism. If nobody speaks up, nothing changes. Honesty is very powerful in business because so few people are. Sometimes that can be scary, especially for women or for minorities, so here’s a different approach –- lightbulb it.

“Find a catchphrase -- for example, ‘Have you noticed?’ So, ‘Have you noticed that when we have equal numbers of men and women on a team, we get better decision-making?’ ‘Have you noticed this speaker line-up is all men?’ Use that catchphrase to call it out and say what you really think in a way that is acceptable.”

Gallop also maintained that corporations should ‘bulk-buy’ and hire groups, not individuals – for example, ensuring that at least three women are represented at board-level to ensure better quality decision-making and outcomes.

“Tokenism is useless because when you have one alien organism, it has to adapt to the culture around it,” she said.

Tackling institutionalized mindsets and outdated cultural formulas are crucial in bringing about better ways of working – and ultimately, better business. Julie Chakraverty, a non-executive director for Aberdeen Asset Management, neatly summed it up: “If you don’t fix the system, you’ll lose the best men as well as the best women.”


Maxine is an environmental journalist working in the field of corporate sustainability, circular economy and resource risk

[Read more about Maxine Perella]


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