February 20, 2015, by ICCSR

Is business responsible for promoting gender diversity?

ICCSR staged a lively debate last month on the subject of whether business should really be taking on responsibility for promoting gender equality.

The hour-long discussion under Chatham House rules in London was held in conjunction with the Institute of Corporate Responsibility and Sustainability and drew in many London-based ICCSR alumni now working across a variety of industry sectors.

Two expert speakers kicked off first, providing both sides of the argument.

The case against promoting gender diversity was based on three principles. First that gender diversity is not a proxy for diversity and that even within gender there is a great deal of diversity. Senior women in the boardroom for example are themselves an elite group and gender is not a proxy for diversity. Second there is no causative proof that promotion of gender equality improves company performance, despite many studies. Deloitte has found that promoting inclusivity rather than gender equality was more important, as a focus on gender does not take any account of wider diversity and cultural inclusion issues that certainly can improve a company’s performance. It is therefore unreasonable to expect business to promote something that is not necessarily in its own interest.

A lot of women find the idea of promoting gender diversity patronising and disempowering sometimes leading to the accusation that they have only been given a job because they are female. In the final analysis, gender equality initiatives lead to counting heads, not delivering real inclusion which ensures hat every head counts

Finally it was argued, that business is notoriously bad at taking on such tasks, and it is better for wider society to address such important issues. Business should work on the basis of a meritocracy and should not become involved in social engineering.

Speaker Two countered that not only can business benefit from promoting gender equality it also has a social responsibility to do so. There is plenty of evidence pointing to a correlation, if not yet a causal link, between the best performing businesses and those that take action to further gender equality. And it was suggested that common sense alone tells us that businesses cannot ignore the talents of 50% of the population without missing out in the long term.

Businesses have responsibilities as well as power. In a democratic society like ours where mainstream public and political opinion is fully in support of gender equality, it is legitimate to expect businesses to act in accordance with those norms and values. We are a long way off equality, there is much more to do, and businesses can contribute to what is an internationally recognised agenda. There are many aspects of gender equality that businesses cannot influence, but there are many it can affect and it should contribute.

With the discussion opened up to the floor, a number of participants argued that the corporate world had already, in fact, shown that it can make a contribution, and had in some ways dramatically changed the way women are treated in the workplace over the past few decades.

However, one delegate cautioned that there was currently too much emphasis on gender equality in the boardroom, pleading for attention to “move away from the senior management bracket and on to the 99% who never make it to the board of directors”.

If you’d like to learn a bit more about what went on at the debate, then you can see a collection of tweets that were posted live from the discussion at https://storify.com/caulfieldp/iccsr-gender-debate

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