Lionel Shriver is wrong

It was with a level of incredulity that I read the comments by Lionel Shriver over the weekend about the inclusivity agenda being championed by Penguin Random House. For those who know me, I spent the best part of 9 years in the business and would like to think that I was in some way responsible for the creation and direction of many of the approaches – not least the removal of the requirement to have a degree.

Shriver, writing in The Spectator, presents a shambolic and intellectually inarticulate assessment of the work that is being done, summarised by the BBC article here.

Anyone who has ever tried to champion inclusion will tell you that these arguments are nothing new. But they are almost always entirely articulated by those in positions of power. I have yet to hear from an underrepresented group who says, “do nothing, the best people are already in place”. And in a sense, that is the first major challenge that you  face.

In changing any system to be more inclusive and diverse, you are ultimately dependent on those in power to cede their right to that position and to change the system that has perpetuated their dominance. That’s why social mobility has been so hard to tackle, because in many ways you’re asking the rich wealthy and powerful to make things a little harder for generations of their family to come.

The aim of our work, wherever we are and whatever we are doing, is to make the world of work fairer and more transparent. We have to do everything we can to ensure that the best succeed, regardless of their background. That’s what inclusion is about and to suggest in any way it is dumbing down is insulting, ill-informed and naive. The system in which we operate is unintentionally rigged towards certain groups and certain backgrounds and all we are doing is unpicking that bias.

As a note of caution, we do have to be careful to ensure the work that we do remains true to that goal – to allow the best to succeed. Diversity and inclusion programmes that become tokenistic displays of good intention are as unhelpful as the problem they are trying to solve. Where Shriver is right is to call out the risk of losing focus on the real change that needs to be made, increasing fairness and allowing potential to shine, on pretty much everything else she is wrong and woefully out of touch.

 

 

Are you sure you’re recruiting the best?

Its back to a favourite topic of mine, education. Last week parents up and down the land were waiting to hear which secondary schools their children had got in to. As any parent who has ever been through the process will tell you, it is full of uncertainty, angst and unpredictability.

And unfairness.

The socio-economic bias in the education is already well established at this point and based on your background, your educational outcomes are already being influenced. In a wonderful piece of research carried out last year, the Sutton Trust highlighted that,

“The top performing 500 comprehensive schools in England, based on GCSE attainment, continue to be highly socially selective, taking just 9.4% of pupils eligible for Free School Meals (FSM), just over half the rate of the average comprehensive (17.2%).”

There are a couple of factors at play, a fair amount of this (about half) is down to the catchment areas, with the same report highlighting that, “a typical house in the catchment area of a top 500 school costs £45,700 more than the average house in the same local authority” but the rest of it is simply down to social selection in admissions processes, “85% of schools in the top 500 admit fewer FSM pupils than live in their catchment area, with over a quarter having a gap of five percentage points or more.”

Let’s just take a moment to consider this. In order to get into the top 500 comprehensive schools you need to live within the catchment area, which is likely to mean that your parents are probably going to have to either earn more, or borrow more. And if that doesn’t apply and yet you still manage to live within the catchment area, if you’re eligible for free school meals you’re less likely to get a place, even living in catchment.

The reason behind this is the over indexing of schools which are in control of their own admissions policies, with voluntary converter academies, faith schools and single sex schools all over-represented in the top 500 schools.

“Faith schools are among the most socially selective group of top schools, more than three times as selective as non-faith schools, and make up 33.4% of the list. Converter academies admit the lowest rate of disadvantaged pupils of the main school types, and comprise 63% of the top schools, compared to just 40% of all secondaries.”

What does the mean in terms of educational outcomes? In a separate report the Education Policy Institute found that, “In 2016, disadvantaged pupils were on average 19.3 months behind their peers by the time they took their GCSEs – meaning they are falling behind by around 2 months each year over the course of secondary school.” Put simply, if you are a pupil from the least advantaged backgrounds your educational outcomes are nearly two years behind your peers when you get to take the first publicly recognisable qualifications.

Of course you don’t need me to tell you that this bias continues into A-levels and then to University, with the gap between those from lower socio-economic groups attending university widening even further over recent years.

Which begs the question, when you hire based on qualifications are you really sure you’re recruiting the best? Or just the luckiest?

References:

https://www.suttontrust.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/05/Selective-Comprehensives-2017.pdf

https://epi.org.uk/report/closing-the-gap/#

https://www.hesa.ac.uk/news/01-02-2018/widening-participation-summary

https://www.ucas.com/corporate/news-and-key-documents/news/applicants-uk-higher-education-down-5-uk-students-and-7-eu-students

Inclusion isn’t passive

The past six months have brought a focus on social and economic divisions that is greater than probably any other period of my lifetime. And with it comes the talk of the need for greater cohesion and the inevitable use of the word inclusion. Every aspect of our life needs to be more “inclusive”.

The joy of the word inclusion is that it has a very personal appeal. Greater inclusivity offers the promise that I, myself, may be better involved, better consulted, better represented in the aspects of life where I feel the outcomes don’t match with my personal agenda.

It is why many business have honed in on the inclusivity tag over and above diversity. The psychological inference of diversity is about others, about difference and about the things that we need to change. Whereas inclusion can be seen to have something in it for me, without an imperative to do anything different.

The value of inclusion starts with understanding your relative position of influence in the system. We all have an inherent desire to be included in things, that’s the constant nagging of our ego, the genuine reason for FOMO. The value only manifests if we understand our role and our contribution and how we can effect change for those that are around us.

With the positive connotations of the use of inclusion, we must not avoid the practical implications, the systemic and structural requirements that are needed to achieve it. Rarely will we view our own “system” as being exclusive, most people believe themselves to be welcoming, to be tolerant and to contribute in a way that allows anyone to prosper and succeed. Instead we look to the actions, the behaviours and beliefs of others.

At the heart of any change is action. If we want to see a different result, we need to do different things, behave in different ways and adopt different beliefs. That is true for all of us, for “them”, for me and for you. And in turn that means that there will be give and take as the system moves and adapts to accommodate a new norm.

Inclusivity isn’t soft, it isn’t passive, it isn’t a polite middle class way of addressing the needs of society. It is real and gritty and challenging and meaningful. It requires us all to assess our own
role and contribution. For more voices to be heard, more people need to listen, for more difference, we need less conformity and for more giving, we need less self. And for all of that, it needs to start with I, not you.

Some are more equal than others

I’ve been a great believer in initiatives to improve the gender imbalance and to focus on diversity of all kinds. I genuinely want to be inclusive.

But the more I look at it, the more I think that most of our actions are just window dressing. I wonder if we’re acting, but essentially undertaking institutional appeasement. Saying the right things, whilst nothing really changes.

What if business is essentially a masculine construct, with male rules and the only way to succeed is by being more male than the men?

I wrote a post back in 2013 called “Just a middle class white guy” and reading it now I think I only scratched on the surface of something that actually significantly hampers our ability to genuinely leverage organisational performance

Not only are all our rules are stacked in favour of men. We’ve taken the rule book and hidden it behind third urinal from the left.

When we go for an interview and they are looking for qualities like “commercial”, “decisive”, “confident” or “ambitious”.

When meetings are ruled by the “single minded”, “focused”, “action orientated” and the “natural leaders”.

What are we really talking about?

Of course, I’m not saying that women don’t have these characteristics or indeed that men automatically do. What I’m saying is that our laziness and sloppy use of language hides a darker truth.

We build our assumptions of success based on the evidence that we have around us. But if that evidence is based on an uneven foundation, are we sure that we really know what is genuine success?

We reward, we promote, we recruit and we develop people in the model of business that is built on a masculine premise. We tell people that they need to be more like our predetermined view of the “norm” if they are going to succeed. We develop them towards this and reward them when they comply.

The more that I look at it, this won’t be solved by initiatives, campaigns or well-meaning propaganda. This will only be solved by wholesale reform and re-engineering of organisational culture and practice by the “male types” that run them.

But most likely, it just won’t. Or at least, not any time soon.