DEI is hard, but it's the future
DEI is for life, not just for Christmas
Auckland, Saturday 9th November. England versus New Zealand in the Rugby World Cup final. With 17 minutes played, an England player was sent off. For the next 63 minutes, despite heroic resistance, the inevitable happened, and a 30 game winning run was brought crashing to a halt and a squad of dedicated and highly skilled professional rugby players saw their dreams shattered. Meanwhile, in the Rugby League World Cup, a valiant English effort to make a final was ended for a team of amateurs, by a fully professional team of Kiwis.
The debate within women’s sport is no longer clean; the best funded, fittest and best prepared team lost to a team of semi-pro and amateur players in the union code, whereas the script was followed in League. In an entirely different sport, a team of professional footballers won the European Championship for England. Is the argument about funding, or should the debate centre around the players themselves? Are English players good enough on the world stage?
Within women’s sport, there exists a perpetual ‘chicken and egg’ debate of investment. Does more money equal more success? Does women’s sport justify column inches and cold, hard cash? Does anyone watch it or care about it (other than vocal devotees) anyway?
This is a microcosm of the DEI conundrum. What is the return on investment for addressing diversity? We all know it feels good. We all know it’s the right thing to do. But is it ‘worth it’? If companies develop strategies to encourage minority groups into their space, will it change anything? Who’s problem is it anyway?
Going back to sport, here are the bare facts within women’s rugby union:
In 2020 2.7 million women were playing rugby globally. This is a 28% increase since World Rugby began promoting the sport in 2014. On a local level, in 2014 I started a women’s rugby team thanks to some funding from the RFU designed to maximise the ‘bounce’ of England’s triumph at the World Cup.
The first training session I ran welcomed 12 players. There were just 2 leagues in the local area; a good one and a developing one. On Sunday, Crewe and Nantwich Ladies fielded a squad of 22 players picked from a wider squad of 60 players. There are now 2 teams and registered female players now represent c.15% of total club membership. It’s probably more like 40% of adult players. Men’s participation has declined in the same time period. A growth of 400% in 8 years. All of this, despite over 1 million girls between 13 and 18 abandoning all sports, often for life across the UK annually.
Women’s participation in rugby continues to grow despite serious challenges with ‘feeder’ teams from juniors to seniors, clubs not investing in ‘women’s fit kit’, challenges with facilities, playing on Sundays and major brands still ‘pinking and shrinking’ rather than investing in appropriate equipment for women. There is minimal press and TV coverage, continued overt sexism on social media (it’ll take 5 minutes for someone to comment ‘who cares?’ underneath a Tweet from the BBC about women’s rugby). Due to the passion and hard work of volunteers, it continues to develop as a sport. Economically, the case is obvious. More players = more money into clubs. There is more demand for kit and equipment and with it, more talent looking for a pathway to the elite level.
So back to DEI. All companies will cite ‘talent development’ as a major strategic risk in their businesses. It doesn’t matter which industry this is in. I’ve always wondered with rugby, how many superstars are sat on the sofa watching I’m a Celebrity not knowing that they have that rare combination of biomechanics, attitude and skill to become an international rugby player? Imagine the same scenario for Investment Analysis. Somewhere across the country, sat in a classroom somewhere many miles away from the top private schools and the City is someone possessing that unique ability to interpret data, build financial models and present reports. Due to their lack of exposure and understanding of the investment industry, they will probably never realise their inherent talents. Worse still, they may well find they are culturally encouraged to ‘know their place’, that that world is for other people.
The problem with any initiative designed to encourage diversity into a new environment is that it rarely generates quick returns. You may get lucky, but there will be many bumps in the road.
When growing a rugby team, there were times when I trained just 4 people. Once the coaches outnumbered the players (sorry, Beth). The club began to question why we should have a voice at all, and it was only thanks to a benevolent and progressive committee and some generous sponsors that we even had a kit to play in. We still see opposition teams wearing the men’s hand-me-downs. If we had measured the success too early, the results would have suggested that it was an expensive folly. 8 years later, it contributes positively to every aspect of the club, and one of the alumni recently represented the USA at the World Cup.
I don’t have the answers for how to address DEI in business at a grassroots level, however it is clear to me that it involves a combination of these areas:
Lobbying and political engagement. Getting the issues on the table, whether at board level in a company, or wider within central policy.
Talent spotting, particularly early into the journey for potential employees. Intelligence / aptitude testing is not a new concept and can be used to identify raw talent and mental ‘horsepower’
Education and visibility, but tailored to the target audience. Terminology needs to be explained, concepts need to be presented in an accessible way. Industries such as Investment Management need to be demystified
Engagement with schools and colleges. This is notoriously difficult for myriad reasons, but integral to success
Macro-thinking. If you approach DEI by solely examining ‘what’s in it for me’, it will fail. However if you consider it as a greater, and necessary good, then you will succeed via osmosis. As will the whole industry if it is joined up
Nurturing and support. Affluent families have affluent contacts and crucially, links into high paying industries. Work experience, internships, open days and good educational advice and mentoring is often the difference. Enabling people from diverse communities to access the same inside track requires internal sponsors and lateral thinking. Surely remote working can now solve some of the geographic differences, for example? Is the payment of a transport season ticket really impossible? Could an intern be supported with work equipment and office attire?
Engagement with further education, and not just the Russell Group. In the north west, major employers such as Bentley and JCP work with the likes of Staffordshire University to influence the content of courses based on their existing and future needs. In the main, universities are receptive to engagement and anything that improves the outcomes for underprivileged students.
Overall, the ‘chicken and egg’ situation that many firms face is a constant challenge and requires both financial and strategic focus. It will be fraught with blind alleys, internal resistance and the accusation that it’s tokenistic, or virtue signaling. It takes time, resource and specialist skills to get moving. However, in a global economy with shortages in a range of skill areas, identifying the talent of the future and diversity of thought is not just a nice to have, but a necessity for global competition.
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