The one with the golden skirts

One of my early posts on this blog was about women and it was reflecting on how through the courses of researching an essay I was writing had found some information that influenced my thinking on the gender debate. I said at the time I worked in an organisation that was 80% women which is now untrue (infrastructure and engineering are still largely male dominated) but also said I knew some fabulous women who had been very successful in breaking the glass ceiling. That is still very true and in fact this post follows conversations with two of them who I am fortunate enough to work with on an almost daily basis.

The organisation I work in is what’s known as a meta-organisation in that it’s an organisation made up of several different partner organisations. One of those partners is currently striving to formulate new strategy on how they will approach improving their diversity and inclusivity. In the course of formulating they have taken some meetings with various management consultants who have shared research and statistics on the current state of play and efforts that other organisations are making to address the same challenge. It’s not new news but lets term it current affairs – the stats were up to date.

The comment that one of my colleagues made which has been bouncing around my head ever since made a very interesting observation. The point she made was (and I’m paraphrasing) that the organisations that have naturally arrived at having a gender balanced board don’t perform better because of the women on the board but because they have cultures that are open and inclusive so the best people are appointed to the board irrespective of gender. They are successful not because of a difference of thinking around the board table (or at least not JUST because of that) but because their cultures are open and meritocratic.

Fast forward 24 hours and I am discussing this comment with my boss and talking about its impact on my thinking with relation to what could be termed the positive discriminatory efforts of some (most notably the Norwegians) and she introduced me to the phrase ‘golden skirts’. Women who are imported into senior roles to ensure a particular business are ‘meeting their quota’ and are seen to have gender balanced boards. Does their presence make a difference to the organisation? Who knows? But in re-reading my earlier post I can’t say my reluctance to jump into positive discrimination will truly solve the problem or truly empower women to take a more leading roles in some of our largest corporations.

I was fortunate enough to attend the recent CIPD Annual Conference and the opening keynote was delivered by Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones (they of “Why should anyone by lead by you?” fame) and their topic was ‘Creating the best workplace on Earth’ and referred to an article they had published recently in the Harvard Business Review. Reactions to the session were mixed (someone described it as a marmite session) but it landed well for me with one point they made creating the most resonance – a point of difference you may call it!!

They had created an acronym for their best workplace DREAMS (you can read more about it in the article) and a little shoehorning aside it worked. The D in their case stood for Difference and in their best workplace check list they offered these statements:

  • I’m the same person at home as I am at work.
  • I feel comfortable being myself.
  • We’re all encouraged to express our differences.
  • People who think differently from most do well here.
  • Passion is encouraged, even when it leads to conflict.
  • More than one type of person fits in here.

I can’t help but think that Diversity has become something of a 4 letter word consigned to ‘also ran’ status on the HR agenda and does seem, at times, to focus on one element of diversity over another (and in doing so self-defeating its desire to be inclusive). It does seem that a discussion about difference would be far more empowering for organisations – let me be me and rather than alienating those who don’t fit into one of the boxes; it could create an opportunity for everyone to feel included in a discussion that could build a better culture and workplace (and of deliver better results). It would challenge the way we (the HR profession) work as it would challenge some of the norms of recruitment and development to name two.

Rather than writing policies that create opportunity for resentment or make people afraid to act  it seems to me the best opportunity organisations have is to examine their cultures for what excludes and turn that into a force for inclusion not for creating labels or clubs. Let’s celebrate difference and let positively intended people explore it – they may make mistakes but in a great culture they’ll learn, not be punished.



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2 responses to “The one with the golden skirts

  1. Great post Rob and very wise words from your colleague. As you say, it would be interesting to know what impact the ‘golden skirts’ have on the businesses that they are parachuted into. I’m guessing, and this is no slight on women, that it’s limited because these boards are doing it because they think they should, not because they truly believe in the value of diversity.

  2. The dilemma appears to be, should we pursue diversity for the sake of appearances, or should we actively set aside anything which prevents or discourages diversity?
    I’d posit that whilst the former may get the PC brigade off your back, you’re making trouble for any organisation if you engineer a scenario like this.
    Surely knocking down barriers to meritocracy has to be the only way, thereby allowing natural diversity to flourish?

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