Diversity isn't Working

By Claire Lamont

That’s what the latest, depressing figures on the gender pay gap tells us.

And this isn’t because most people, men and women, consciously want women to be paid less, or treated as less valuable than their male colleagues. We all grow up in a particular cultural dynamic, and it takes time and self-reflection for us to recognise some of the unconscious prejudices and ideas that we carry. But we currently underestimate quite how complex unconscious bias is, and how hard it is to change deeply-held beliefs across organisations and within individuals.

Take Stacey Macken. She worked for decades in the City, becoming a vice president at Deutsche Bank before joining BNP Paribas. It was in that role that she was paid £50,000 less than her male predecessor and £40,000 less than a man appointed to the same role six months later. When she raised this issue, she says she faced a litany of discrimination by colleagues including a witch’s hat being left on her desk. Off work with anxiety, she’s now suing the bank for damages.

Stacey’s is just one example of the shocking ways that gender-based discrimination still goes on, both in the City and across the UK.

Reporting the pay gap is now a legal requirement for large firms in the UK. Despite that, we’ve just passed the deadline for reporting and it’s clear that in 2019 many companies did not report at all, and a quarter filed in the last 36 hours before the deadline. The results? In a toe-curling 45% of British companies the gap between men and women’s pay actually widened in the past year.

Which makes me want to scream with rage.

How can we be in this place in 2019 - almost 50 years since legislation was passed requiring equal pay for men and women?

Clearly, the approaches we’ve taken to addressing this problem so far are not nearly enough. The usual response - training, or awareness-raising - will only go so deep. Where people are ashamed or distressed by what is happening - and where a culture of silence already exists around issues like how much we’re being paid - training may only re-affirm or push further underground the deep discomfort of the situation for us all.

Because gender-based discrimination still runs very deep. Women face a penalty simply for being competent. Where success makes men more likeable, women who achieve highly are liked less by both men and women. Women are also far more likely to be perceived as bossy or too aggressive when they negotiate their salary.

Once again, these attitudes are generally not conscious; they are culturally-conditioned responses that most people are not aware of. And bringing them up can prompt (understandable) inner responses of shame, guilt or embarrassment. Most of us choose to avoid these feelings, and so we avoid the issue. Not because we’re bad people - because we’re people, and that’s what we do.

But allowing these ingrained patterns and responses to trundle along as we have is not ok. Things need to change. So how?

Organisations need strong mentoring, leadership and coaching structures with diversity and inclusion hot-wired into their ways of working to see change from the bottom up. It is in the focussed building of awareness of ourselves, and our impacts on others that we can start to integrate the more uncomfortable aspects of how we all enact discrimination of different kinds in our words and actions. This is the case for women - who, with the best intentions of leaning in, can lack confidence in their own abilities and awareness of the wider cultural dynamics shaping their role - as well as for men.

And we need to move out of the silo approach to diversity as a separate department, or part of HR, and embed it deep into the fabric of how we approach management, leadership and personal development for employees. Because building awareness of diversity and unconscious bias will not only help us stop discrimination, it will help us unleash the dynamic potential of women and other groups currently discriminated against - and that can only be a very good thing for companies’ bottom lines.