17/08/2017 07:23 BST | Updated 17/08/2017 07:23 BST

Preventing A Diversity Backslide: Re-examining Initiatives To Keep Women Moving Forwards

According to the news headlines of late, the working world has not been great for women. It seems that issues around unconscious bias are still rife - and they have certainly captured the attention of the media. Currently Google is facing a class action lawsuit from roughly sixty women, all of whom are involved in the same row around issues of sexism at the tech giant.

Worryingly, this is only one case out of many that are consistently being reported from the tech world, where gender bias and discrimination seems to be a big issue. We've seen the same problems arise on this side of the Atlantic, too. Just take the recent fallout over the BBC pay gender gap, and the news that the UK Brexit negotiation team only has one female member, as examples of two stories that led the national news agenda, and still continue to be a hot topic for debate.

We are staring in the face of blatant inequality and gender bias - something which, despite the implementation of the Equal Pay Act and various other measures, doesn't seem to be going anywhere quickly. Thus, we must begin to consider the reality of our situation: what can we do to bring change about, if we know that our current efforts aren't working?

As a start, we could look towards the way diversity and inclusion is currently practiced. It's ironic, really. Reaching true gender diversity is a goal which revolves around the ethos of constant re-assessment and change. Unfortunately, our approach to diversity itself hasn't changed or shifted in the slightest. It's been more than 20 years since my first book on the topic of gender diversity was published. Unfortunately, many organisations and industries seem set in their ways and resistant to change - diversity at senior level is quite clearly still a distant aspiration for many. This is something we must all work together to fix.


One area which has remained unbelievably static in the diversity world is "box ticking". This is the idea that reaching a certain number of candidates or meeting set targets is the key to helping us reach gender parity. It's worth noting that because of these aforementioned targets, we are now talking about the figures of women in industry and their respective pay in relation to men more than ever before. This is an excellent thing indeed.

However, diversity strategies based on numbers should still be challenged. We are, unfortunately, focusing far too much on achieving certain percentages and targets: this is a fundamental problem in itself. When we set targets for women as non-executives, it creates a kind of façade that prevents us from looking at fundamental (and rather tricky) parts of organisational cultures which prevent them from getting to these roles in the first place. This includes areas such as recognising how we identify talent, examining how flexible an organisation is and looking into the staff's predisposition for bias. By relying on targets, organisations can sometimes fall into the trap of "ticking" the gender parity box - which means they end up forgetting about, or abandoning other parts of their diversity strategies all together.


A similar approach to the "box ticking" issue is the method of creating a "women's only" network or resource group. Previously, this has been considered to be a "best practice solution" to encouraging diversity and the movement of women up the ranks. Whilst it is a commendable option to explore, as these places can be considered safe spaces for women to discuss issues and offer support to those who feel isolated, it is hard to find many further benefits. Creating a separate group that seeks to exclude others is the exact opposite of inclusion: and if anything, it encourages separation. The reality is that when we separate one group from others within the work place, that group must resultantly work harder than the rest in order to be recognised.

People have to step up and take responsibility for their own careers, and work towards actively pursuing recognition within the context of their workplace: this is what causes change and progression. Relying on support groups to help push the cause of equality forwards isn't going to work, as networking inwardly and waiting for an organisation to change to the will of that group is futile. Change must be pursued from within existing structures - not outside of them.


Finally, when it comes to gender, we need to start questioning the assumptions that we have based many of our combative strategies on. Research has proven continuously that there isn't really a difference between men and women's capabilities. The "men and women are different but equal" argument needs to go - as it ends up doing more harm than good. It simply perpetuates old gender stereotypes, but in a way which is framed as positive and socially acceptable. The only way to truly make the slogan acceptable is by removing the end of the statement.

It should really read: "men and women are equal" - thus proving that the correct figure for women in senior roles should be 50%, to match this equality and the percentage of the population which they make up.

Those advocates leading on the topic of diversity for their companies should be careful not to fall into the trap of leaning on targets or falling into age-old traps which hinder progress. Diversity initiatives still have a long way to go - and those of us trying to affect positive change must make sure we do not end up standing in the way of it. By challenging ourselves to question current practices, we can hopefully move towards fairer workplaces where proper treatment and opportunities are open to all.