Time to rebuild a more equal economy

Jul 28, 2020

Rachel Hussey encourages leaders to see this crisis as an opportunity to create firms that are truly equal.

As many offices begin to reopen and people take the first tentative steps back to their workplace, there is a lot of talk about getting back to ‘normal’, the ‘new normal’ or the ‘new abnormal’. Whatever way we refer to it, this next period is going to be very different to what went before and we all have an opportunity to reimagine or reframe our ideas of work and the workplace.

Over the past few weeks and months, the focus on diversity has resurfaced and sharpened, and is generating considerable discussion. The Black Lives Matter movement catapulted the issue of race to centre stage and caused many organisations to state or restate their commitment to diversity. The importance of authenticity in this commitment is key, as we saw when some companies leading the charge were called out as having no diversity on their boards or senior management.

Many organisations in Ireland, and their leaders, are genuinely committed to diversity and really want to move the dial. They believe that their organisations aim to be meritocracies in that everyone has the same opportunities to advance and that the ‘best person for the job’ gets the job. They are committed to diversity but also believe that if you are good enough, you will succeed. When women or minority groups don’t succeed, the belief is that it is because of choice, lack of ability, or lack of representation. The truth may be that the environment or the experience is not welcoming or encouraging of difference.

The starting point is for leaders to acknowledge that inequality exists in every organisation. With that frame of mind, leaders can keep a razor-sharp focus on diversity every day, in every decision that is made for the business, including around promotions and team composition. The tone is set at the top and when the rest of the organisation realises the importance of diversity to its leadership, equality is taken more seriously as a business imperative.

The next step is to lead open and honest debate about how merit is determined and judged. If we are convinced that opportunities are decided solely based on merit and the best person for the job, are we satisfied that there is no inherent bias in the merit criteria, the merit decision process or how we classify a ‘job well done’? And does our sponsor culture reinforce historical stereotypes and work styles as the meritocracy we would like to maintain, or is it more open to balanced styles, skills and opportunities?

These conversations regularly lead to debates about the value of targets and quotas, particularly for female representation. Such debates can, in isolation, unfortunately lead to the view that targeted promotions are tokens and not a genuine reflection of talent. It also risks majority groups, which in most business situations are men, seeing it as a zero-sum game driving reduced opportunity for their own careers, which then makes it less likely that men will support diversity initiatives. If we want to increase the pace of change, while targets have value and may be the best kick-start in many ways, leaders must treat managing equitable opportunities in the same way as they manage costs and revenue – close attention to detail, reporting and measurement; but targets by themselves should not be the only long-term option for genuine progress.

Finally, to learn more about the reality in an organisation, leaders can and should have open conversations with their teams to find out more about people’s experience of working at the firm. Having roundtable discussions with people at all levels to gain an understanding of the visible and invisible barriers that women and minority groups face is key to understanding and to making the changes necessary to dismantle those barriers.

To make this change sustainable and meaningful, particularly in relation to gender, we need to ensure that women who reach senior positions are valued in the same way as men for their talent and their contribution to the role. That’s where leaders have a real opportunity, by their approach and expectations of everyone in the organisation to practise equality in their daily work lives.

So let’s not waste this crisis. Let’s use it to make a real impact on creating firms that are truly equal.

Rachel Hussey is Chair of 30% Club Ireland and a Partner at Arthur Cox.