International Women’s Day – We Must Knock Down a Thousand Tiny Walls - Bev White, CEO, Harvey Nash Group
As we approach International Women’s Day, I wanted to take a few moments to reflect on how far we have come in terms of diversity and inclusion – and how much further there still is to go.
When I stepped into my Computer Science degree many years ago, I was one of only a handful of women in the class. When I took my first CIO role a few years later, it was over six months before I met a woman in a similar position.
The situation would not be quite so stark now and in the last two decades we have undoubtedly seen progress. But even so, when I became CEO of Harvey Nash Group earlier this year, I was the first ever female CEO for the company, and one of only a small number of women CEOs in the UK.
Whilst I can look upon my own journey with an element of personal pride, I am hugely conscious of how it still remains more difficult for women to progress, and how ‘pushing against the tide’ is bad for women, and just as importantly bad for companies and the economy. This is particularly the case in progression to leadership positions, and more widely across sectors like science and technology, where our own research suggests that women account for only 15 per cent of tech professionals, a figure that has not changed in the last five years.
In a past dominated by a ‘Mad Men’ approach to business, bias was often quite blatant. I remember in one of my first board meetings, I sat down as the only female member and an exec said to me “I’ll have a coffee, Bev” - to which I replied “Well, I’ll have a tea”!
Thankfully those days are mostly gone, but now the challenge is more subtle. Bias is less obvious and harder to pin down - but it’s still there. Often this will be in small things that give off an underlying message or create a barrier of some kind. Someone sending an email that opens with ‘Hey guys!’ for example, or arranging an important meeting at a school pick up time.
There are lots of ways in which behaviours give off an ‘in my club/not in my club’ message. We often see this in openly competitive and sales-oriented environments where there is an almost macho culture about performance. Women are competitive too of course, but not usually in as overt a way as men.
We must guard against this creation of barriers and divides. Every misplaced word, assumption or action constructs a micro wall. Individually these walls are not significant, but together they create something more substantial. A culture can develop that is not truly inclusive and prevents the positive ‘stickiness’ being created where people feel valued and want to belong and stay. All the research says that inclusive organisations are more effective, more productive and deliver more profit. And this doesn’t just relate to gender diversity, it stretches to all forms of inclusion.
Be inclusive, and you’ll be successful. And it makes perfect sense. Why would you not want all the ideas, skills, thoughts, experiences that this wonderful world has to offer?
There are many, many things that need to happen to improve inclusivity, but I think the one thing we can all do, is to think about our actions and whether they are helping to create an open and inclusive environment – or are hindering it. It may well be that you are not even aware of it until you stand back and look at it afresh – which is why people talk about unconscious bias. I actually prefer the phrase ‘subconscious bias’ though, because it hints that we all have a responsibility for our actions. You could compare it to careless driving. The driver doesn’t intend to cause an accident but does nevertheless – and has to take responsibility for it!
Are you helping to open doors and encourage inclusion? Everyone – whatever their background - needs to ask themselves this regularly. Diversity and equality of opportunity are ongoing and never done. It’s all of our jobs to create the culture and environment that we want to work in – and to support, mentor and sometimes nudge others to advance and flourish in the workplace and beyond.
Happy International Women’s Day!