· 2 min read · Features

Boosting gender diversity at RBS: How it's being done


Speaking at a roundtable discussion, RBS CHRO Elaine Arden shared insight into goal setting, tackling lazy assumptions and keeping things practical

“After the financial crisis, who wanted to work in banks? How many women wanted to work in banks? And how many women wanted to work in banks called RBS?” So says Elaine Arden, RBS CHRO, reflecting on the scale of the challenge faced by the bank in 2008.

For RBS, a large part of the journey to being a better business is focusing on the culture change that comes with embedding diversity and inclusion. At a roundtable discussion Arden revealed some of the lessons she’s learning along the way. She was accompanied by chief executive of The Mentoring Foundation Peninah Thomson, who is supporting RBS in much of their work on gender balance. Here’s a snapshot of the conversation.

Have clear goals

More than 30% of RBS’s top 5,000 leaders are female, but Arden says focusing on an “aggregate” number like this could give an incomplete picture of progress, and how far there is still to go. To ensure culture change right across the board, RBS is now aiming to have 30% female representation in all its business areas. “That’s much harder to do, and the big test will be the next few years,” says Arden.

Diversity goals have been linked to the executive team’s collective scorecard (the bank has gotten rid of bonuses in a bid for positive behavioural change). “We have a relentless focus on measuring,” Arden says.

All HRDs have probably worked in organisations long enough to see D&I initiatives stall time and again. For Arden, it comes down to a simple question all leaders need to be able to answer: “Do we want it enough? If the answer is yes, set clear goals.”

Link diversity to the wider strategy

“It’s important for HR professionals to keep pushing [the diversity agenda], but it’s important to do it within the context,” says Arden. For RBS, the context has been a complete strategic rethink and accompanying restructure, and a new focus on the customer (it has an aim to be the number one bank for customer service, trust and advocacy).

“The customer-led strategy and context is what we are putting the culture and leadership into,” says Arden. “Our customer is the UK public. We need to look at the whole ecosystem, such as what are we doing to help women running businesses. Every initiative we do has to have a customer angle as well [as an internal one].”

Consider ‘set’ and ‘setting’

Thomson defines ‘set’ as the set of attributes an individual brings to a role; ‘setting’ is the organisational context and environment in which they find themselves. For D&I to be successful, both must be addressed. “Tackling one or the other is not the way to go,” she says.

Arden says this is an ongoing challenge, and that HR needs to tackle lazy assumptions – such as that senior women probably don’t have children (one she comes across herself quite regularly). She says using personal stories from employees in communications can be very powerful. “The human story sticks, as opposed to saying: ‘Did you know we have a policy?’” she says.”Some of this is about humanising the place.”

Keep it practical

To engage line managers in D&I, keep it practically applicable. For example, RBS’s divisional CEOs and HRDs are asked for the names of those mid-tier women with high potential, rather than just asked for numbers. “It’s positive action,” says Arden. “It’s not about the number, we want to know the names.”

A new leadership and management development programme is “practical and unashamedly about behavioural change”. “It’s about how to have that conversation about vision, values and goals,” Arden adds. More widely, a simple ‘Yes’ check, a decision-making tool for employees at all levels, keeps everyone focused on making sound choices for the right reasons.