I’m 48 years old and I have been running a business for 17 years. (Sounds like a therapy session doesn’t it?!) During my 17 years of owning and running a business, I have seen significant changes in the protection for women and others in the workplace. My business provides an HR and training service, so employment law and employee relations are key knowledge areas for us and so it’s part of my ‘day job’ that I watch and learn about these things.
But whilst I have seen significant changes in legislation, what I don’t think I have seen are giant strides forward for diversity generally. Only last year, a survey of male directors in the UK suggested that at least 12% of our current directors believe that increasing women on company boards will have a detrimental impact on business. That’s not a neutral impact but a detrimental impact. And it breaks my heart to say it, but I believe an equal number of women would also say that women are not up to the job.
You might think that women were being parachuted into these senior jobs with no qualifications and no experience with such negative views being expressed about their value. But nothing could be further from the truth.
One major problem with diversity law is that it’s generally designed to penalise offenders rather than educate society or support change. Laws encourage individuals within society to seek reparations but seldom provide our communities with the tools required to achieve genuine change. Surely, what we need more than legislation and punishment is a plan to achieve real change and to provide support within that change process for those who don’t understand the need for it, who feel uncomfortable with it, or otherwise, who will actively sabotage it.
Let me ask you to take a minute to reflect on what it really means for our society when at least 12% of the male directors of the largest companies in Britain genuinely believe that women are a liability in business.
Those 12% of male directors will, over their career, have enormous influence over hundreds, if not thousands or tens of thousands, of women’s careers. They will be influencing their daughters and granddaughters and also spreading their views in the communities they live in.
I cannot begin to imagine how much influence these 12% of senior business leaders will have across their lifetimes but, unfortunately, it will be a rare person who challenges them on their thinking or behaviour. Is it really so hard for so many to accept that women can contribute just as much in business as men? And surely it’s time we broke this damaging, destructive male code of conduct in business that does not permit men to challenge other men in public, even when they are behaving appallingly?
A few weeks ago, I read about Iraq introducing new legislation to reduce the age for marriage from 18 to around 8 years of age (is that really what Iraqi men think is acceptable treatment of girls?) plus other rights for husbands which fundamentally undermine the basic rights of their wives. I could explode with frustration when I see this happening in our world and this whole topic requires a blog in its own right, but what I wanted to mention was one of the comments left by a reader of the article.
It said: “Why are the women of the UK not standing up and protesting about this?”
It’s interesting, this comment. It was left by a man and it’s similar to other comments I have read over the years about issues that relate to women. From my observations, men expect women to change society and to fight against injustices against women; they view it as women’s work to fight for women’s issues. And this applies as much in business as it does in society.
It is really odd that most men do not think they have a responsibility to seek change and I’m curious as to why this is the case but, critically, this creates a major problem. For, if men are expecting women to drive change, the reality is that in almost every community and in almost every business it is not women who are currently in the strongest position to influence change. The reality, whether women like it or not, and whether men like it or not, is that to achieve real changes in our society and our businesses we need our male leaders to get on board and drive this forward with as much energy and determination as they traditionally pursue profit and power.