The idea of gender diversity and inclusion has been steadily pulled in from the fringes towards mainstream consciousness. Within organisations of all sizes, there is real progress being made towards eliminating systemic glass ceilings and enhancing opportunities for talented and dynamic females in the workforce. Recently, Lord Mervyn Davies of Abersoch, the UK Prime Minister’s Trade Envoy for Sri Lanka, alongside Head of Inclusive Diversity at the London Stock Exchange Group, Bani Chandrasena, formed a vibrant discussion on this topic during a webinar organised by the Council for Business with Britain – Sri Lanka (CBB).
The webinar is part of a series of efforts to promote diversity and inclusion by the CBB, which is currently led by its President Roshanie Jayasundera-Moraes. The Council for Business with Britain – Sri Lanka facilitates and promotes two-way trade between Sri Lanka and the UK and enables a harmonious business relationship between the two countries.
Recognising the importance of promoting diversity and inclusion within organisations, a subcommittee led by committee member and former Executive Vice President of the CBB, Linda Giebing have launched efforts to help organisations implement diversity and inclusion as part of their business strategy.
Understanding the importance of gender diversity & inclusion
After leading teams in the UK, Lord Davies was transferred to Asia, specifically Hong Kong. It was here that he realised that 90% of significant teams were women. However, it quickly became apparent that he did not truly understand how groups with powerful and talented women functioned.
It became clear that diversity of gender and opinion is powerful and provides hope for tackling a rapidly changing world. Lord Davies himself dedicated time to becoming a major change agent and leading the charge towards a more diverse future, within the UK and across Asia. When posed the question of potentially triggering this level of understanding and awareness within Sri Lankan leaders, he had some interesting insights and data to share.
“Your personal authentic leadership style must have humility as a trait so that you are ready to truly listen to others before making decisions” – Lord Mervyn Davies
Lord Davies recalled his tenure during the economic restoration from the 2008 financial crisis. He consulted with Economist from Harvard Business School Michael Porter, who, in his 6-point recovery plan, stated the need to get women back into the workplace.
Studies show that six out of ten grants were being won by women, for example, in the legal profession. However, this was in an industry in which the upper echelons were all dominated by men. This jarring reality was also supplemented by the fact that only 21% of top 100 companies had ever had women in their executive committee.
Over time, Lord Davies learned that for women to be heard and included within these hierarchies, they need to be tough and need to be willing to make themselves heard.
The general trend, as he sees it, is that women tend to underestimate their capabilities. However, Lord Davies believes that now is the time for a different approach. He believes that now is the time for women to join up with like-minded men who advocate for more women in power, to shift the power balance and improve access to senior corporate roles.
A key idea that Lord Davies also stressed is that nations and businesses that do not have women at the top will not remain competitive from a global perspective.
In return, Bani shifted the conversation pointing to two ongoing approaches currently being implemented in Europe to tackle this issue. These are the quota versus the voluntary approach and whether this is the best approach for Sri Lanka. At this point, Lord Davies presented an actionable solution for both men and women who are embarking on their careers.
“I’m a big believer in the idea that in business you need people from diverse backgrounds. Particularly in the world today where there is so much change” – Lord Mervyn Davies
In many nations, the talent is deep and wide. Yet, the skills, understanding, and experience are lacking. His best recommendation was to actively participate and build up boardroom or trustee experience in for example an arts organisation. The crux of his argument was to use whatever opportunity at hand to become an expert in an issue you want to advocate for. Afterwards, practice speaking about that issue and talk to as many people in as many forums as possible. In doing so, build up your confidence and skillset so that joining a board of a company will not be an issue of experience.
By being intentional about the change you want to see and with just 10% of people participating and voicing their thoughts on the change they wish to advocate for, a nation will begin to see a real difference.
Improving gender diversity & inclusion in the workplace
Lord Davies highlighted that many women in the UK are choosing to be entrepreneurs. It’s a preferred alternative to the demanding work life of the corporate world.
This has become their way of fighting the disadvantages faced with the expectation of women being considered responsible for caring for elderly parents and children. It’s an expectation that leads them to drop off from corporate life. He also firmly believes that this is a trend that is expected to boom across the globe.
“There is real business value in having diversity at senior management level where more inclusive strategic decisions are made. This is the first step towards a transformation towards unbiased talent decisions” – Lord Mervyn Davies
However, it has also been made apparent that women who do make it into board positions must take the initiative as leaders to create and demand more space for other women.
Furthermore, it was discussed that one of the best ways to increase the number of women in the workplace would be to develop case studies and promote the success of women as a whole. This would also be an excellent opportunity to promote the massive amounts of talent within any nation.
Given the dynamic nature of the world, the panel also discussed that the traditional approach of employees looking at the CEO’s and boards for guidance is now defunct. Instead, it is now the time for CEOs to look at their employees, especially their younger employees. These individuals are deeply passionate about gender diversity and heavily advocate for this cause to ensure that their businesses remain relevant and productive at all points of their supply chain.
The role of leadership
Another brilliant idea dissected by Bani and Lord Davies was regarding the human characteristics that define great leaders. This discussion led to an exploration of what qualities are needed to succeed in the work environment and push for more diversity in the workplace.
“The world needs bold leaders who will take the first steps towards making decisions more inclusively, which will create the trends of diversity and inclusion that will transform industries like we are seeing in the UK” – Lord Mervyn Davies
Ultimately, Lord Davies enlightened us that no one will remember you for how much money you made at the end of the day. However, more so for the number of people you positively impacted and how you stood up for your values, even if it meant leaving a workplace that did not make an effort to represent what you value.
In his closing thoughts, Lord Davies shared that it was necessary to enact a cooperative effort. Either by finding two or three male CEO’s who can help support this cause of gender diversity or being a change agent yourself. Doing so within your company or otherwise, while also calling for greater exposure of female success and recognising their value and talent is most certainly the best way forward within the Sri Lankan ecosystem.