On 4 June, I addressed a diverse audience of business people at the London launch of The Two Percent Club – which addresses the imbalance of talent at the top of British companies – for which Ernst & Young was host and sponsor.
That we were debating the need to challenge the status quo of diversity in business just before the centenary of the death of Emily Davison, the pioneering suffragette who lost her life a few days after falling beneath the King's horse at the 1913 Epsom Derby, wasn't lost on me.
It caused me to reflect, as I have on numerous occasions, on how much has changed, but also on how far we still have to go on equal rights for all women globally, such as female representation in the workplace, particularly at senior levels, and equal pay.
I'm very passionate about the competitive case for diversity in business. It's an issue close to my heart, not least because I have a young daughter and a young son whose futures are tied up in it. But also because I have a responsibility to ensure my own business and each person in it actively and positively effects change in the market and seeks to be a leader in doing so.
We all know diversity gives us access to a wider talent pool and helps us represent our client base. Diverse teams fundamentally make better business decisions and, therefore, do better business. Yet the pace of change has been slow and protracted, and that makes me frustrated. I am, it is fair to say, becoming a little impatient for things to progress at a better pace.
Of course, businesses' decades-long commitment to the principle of diversity is leading to organisations doing things differently. There's a lot of inspiring work being done by groups such as The 30% Club - of which I'm a proud board member - and The Two Percent Club. And many companies, including my own, are doing good things.
At Ernst & Young, we chose to announce our aspirational targets for both female and black minority ethnic partner admissions back in the autumn last year - the first professional services firm to do so in the UK. And, as voluntary signatories to Theresa May's Think, Act, Report, we also now publicly report on the diversity of our UK staff. However, targets with teeth, in and of themselves, aren't enough to change the diversity in our workplaces and on our boards. And there is a danger that we can reduce diversity to just a numbers game, chasing targets. But they do provide us with something against which we can measure our progress. They arguably help to hasten the pace.
Initiatives such as the National Equality Standard, which Ernst & Young launched in the spring, with the support of the Equality and Human Rights Commission and the CBI, also have the potential to bring about change. This is the first time a standard on equality has been drawn up by businesses for businesses. It's definitely a step in the right direction. Tone from the top is important in realising ambitions to improve diversity in organisations.
These targets and initiatives are all aimed at changing behaviour. For me, the starting point to changing behaviour is changing attitudes. And that means changing the way we think, feel and act about diversity.
Diversity really matters to people. It is about fairness. It is about justice. It is about opportunity. And it is about success. We all want a place where equality is not just a stated principle, but a universal reality.
Steve Varley (pictured) is UK and Ireland chairman and managing partner at Ernst and Young
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