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Battling barriers to inclusion

June 2016: London is a city where diversity is its winning brand, but why are professional service firms struggling to diversify their talent pipeline? asks Sonia Brown MBE, founder of the National Black Women’s Network.

Repeated business research shows that organisations with diverse leadership teams have a stronger competitive advantage and outperform those with homogeneous leadership teams.

At the same time, demographic changes mean that firms will no longer be able to depend on traditional routes to attract, retain and develop the next generation of talent. Why?

There are two key issues. Nearly four million of London’s residents (44%) are of a black and minority ethnicity origin. In addition, women’s participation in the workforce is now at parity with men’s and there is a greater scrutiny by stakeholders, investors and customers over the gender pay gap. But still female workers in the finance and insurance suffer a pay gap of almost 40%.

But change won’t occur until firms are able to better address the barriers, issues and challenges that impact their ability to maximise the benefits that diversity in top talent brings to their company in the long term.

Firms acknowledge that they have a major challenge to increase the number of talented professionals from diverse backgrounds in senior positions and this will require major change. Internal structures need to be in place to retain and develop top talent from diverse backgrounds, with better auditing, measurement and accountability of their practices and action plans to achieve wider diversity at senior levels. More diversity at the top means firms can respond to broader market opportunities and access to markets.

The problem with race

With London expected to see the number of BMEs increase to 50% by 2038, more needs to be done to progress ethnic diversity in leadership positions in the big firms in the future. Internal schemes and programmes to support staff are considered well-meaning by employees, but many consider participating in them amounts to ‘career suicide’.

They hear the rhetoric about their firm’s commitment to embrace difference and create opportunities for all employees; however, when the senior management team still looks ‘white and bright’, suffer from ‘group think’ and don’t share the same outlook, attitude and views of those who do not fit the ‘mould’, it’s difficult to believe their practices and policies are nothing more than illusionary.

Staff see these as ‘diversity defense’ programmes especially when representation at senior level shows no real change and the dominant group feel they are being treated ‘unfairly’ and discriminated against.  Inadvertently, these ‘inclusive’ diversity programmes are seen as protecting the organisation, not the group in question.

Unless a firm can introduce measures, demonstrate accountability and implement these programmes with greater sensitivity, these programmes are simply seen as colourful window dressing rather than allowing everyone in the organisation to feel valued and supported.

Supporting women in the workplace

Over the years, companies have been paying more attention to gender diversity, but a high proportion of women believe gender is still a barrier to their success. Big promotions tend to come in the early 30s at the time women are thinking about starting a family. A corporate culture of excessive hours, frantic calendars, heavy travel schedules, and lack of viable career paths means women are “selecting out” of senior management positions and evaporating out of the accounting pipeline to choose careers in industry or entrepreneurship.

The obvious next step is fostering a culture where diversity is more acceptable and platitudes give way to meaningful actions. Both female and ethnic minorities complain about unconscious bias in traditional recruitment, training and progression practices. Many professionals believe firms hold long-held prejudices so are still recruiting and advancing people in their own image; thus rejecting gifted candidates from different backgrounds.

To address these issues I would recommend the following:

  • The banking and law sectors have introduced voluntary quotas and accountancy firms would do well to follow suit if they wish to attract the best talent more quickly.
  • Increase the number of diverse role models and career advocates who promote the profession at all levels of the organisation both internally and externally.
  • Encourage senior female managers to mentor and sponsor other women to offer organisational awareness, better political navigation and advise of appropriate opportunities.
  • Partnering with schools, further education and community organisations to enhance the participant’s knowledge of the organisation and its clients; promote career routes into the profession to those who lack the role models, advisors and social networks.

There will be a need for innovative thinking in how firms conduct business, manage their talent and minimise the loss of talented professionals along the way. But unfortunately, the process will drag on for a few years without proactive and sustained action.

Sonia Brown MBE is founder and director of the National Black Women’s Network

London Accountant

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