Major accountancy firms and others in the financial sector would no more
forgo diversity training and programmes than stop graduate recruitment. In fact,
with more than 50% of graduates being female and as many as 40% of the student
population coming from ethnic minorities, they haven’t much choice. On top of
this, local government departments require proof from their suppliers that they
are committed to workplace diversity.
Despite these pressures leading to the all embracing acceptance of diversity,
however, some have their doubts over its obvious necessity and political
correctness. In diversity programmes there are large gaps between walking the
walk and talking the talk.
In fact one piece of recent research shows that most finance professionals
believe that workplace diversity initiatives are glorified PR stunts, designed
largely to ensure employers avoid prosecution under discrimination laws. This is
despite the fact that across the whole sector, not least in accountancy firms
there have been a proliferation of programmes and initiatives.
But according to a survey by financial recruitment company Hewitson Walker
only 35% of the 170 accountants they interviewed felt the diversity programmes
in their companies were having any real effect.
‘We’ve got a programme which is supposed to ensure that we are recruiting
from all different types of backgrounds and ethnic groups,’ said one chartered
accountant working for an investment bank.
‘Yet practically everyone at senior level is still white, middle class and
male. Where is the diversity in that?’.
LEVEL PLAYING FIELD
Another part qualified management accountant working at another leading bank
took a similar view. ‘There is supposed to be a level playing field here, but
the only women who really get on are those who are willing to forgo a family and
commit completely to the bank. There are few at senior level with children but
if they ever get to see them it must be a minor miracle,’ they said.
This last quote is of course echoed throughout the workplace. How can
organisations which compete ferociously, which demand commitment – for which
they pay well – somehow level the playing field for those who not only take
career breaks but demand to work shorter hours.
More than half those questioned (54%) believed that diversity programmes were
set up to generate good public reactions, and three quarters (73%) thought it
was because firms feared prosecution under discrimination laws. Only a third
felt that companies had a genuine commitment to a diverse workforce at all
levels. Nevertheless despite this cynicism 85% thought that the aim of diversity
programmes was desirable.
Those working in this field are not surprised with these findings. There is a
fairly suspicious view of management across a whole range of subjects. Many have
experienced diversity training which reeks of political correctness but there’s
little management will or understanding.
These efforts can turn out to be counter productive. There is a feeling in
the boardroom that even with genuine effort from senior management real
diversity is going to take decades, not years, to achieve. However as this
research shows there is still a long way to go before staff buy in to these
programmes and aspirations.
Companies such as investment bank Morgan Stanley are only too aware that
there is a perception that their business is a male dominated environment. High
profile discrimination cases don’t help this general view. Nor do the
demographics of the leadership cadres. But the bank has set up focus groups
which resulted in ‘women masterclasses’ covering self awareness, self marketing
Another for senior women is designed to improve managerial skills such as
influencing, assertiveness and communication. The bank has also set up a
parenting buddy programme which helps to reintegrate employees coming back after
having a baby.
The scheme matches the returnee with an experienced parent who gives guidance
and support, and advice on how to juggle the demands of work and family.
Last year Big Four firm Ernst & Young appointed Tina Mason its first ever
UK diversity manager. The firm said that it wasn’t so much a sign that the firm
was taking diversity seriously for the first time, only that it was beginning to
focus on the subject rather than see it as part of a good idea within human
‘I am not surprised that there are people who take a cynical view of
diversity programmes. It wouldn’t surprise me if that was the case here.
Although 14% of our partners are women, and 6% come from ethnic communities
where organisations are in an early stage of communicating their diversity
programmes, its easy to see why many would take a sideways view,’ says Mason.
‘We are working hard on communicating an understanding of what we are doing,
that it’s not just political correctness or equal opportunities, or even a
question of reducing risk. It’s much more. We are actively debating how to speed
up the process and whether setting targets might be the right way.’
The firm recently held an event aimed at attracting Afro Caribbean
accountants with some experience. ‘Movement at senior level is vital, not least
in determining how these programmes are perceived,’ Mason says.
E&Y is proud that many of its senior women have families and have
achieved flexible working arrangements which allow them to enjoy both their work
and their home life.
The firm recently launched a parent network as a way of signalling its
intentions of allowing its staff to successfully balance the work/life balance.
‘For us, fostering a more inclusive and diverse work environment isn’t just a
catch phrase, it’s a steadfast commitment. Diversity is a key part of our
business strategy. Our strategy evolved to take all aspects of diversity into
account – both the visible (such as gender and race) and the more subtle
(belief, experiences) differences into account,’ says Elisabeth Vale, HR Partner
‘We view diversity in its broadest sense, but place particular emphasis on
gender diversity as we are committed to attracting and retaining female talent.’
There have been areas of success. Women now account for 41% of graduates
joining Deloitte – an increase from 35% in 2004 – and at last year’s promotion
round, the firm increased the number of female partners to 30%. Several of the
firm’s senior women hold key operational roles within the organisation,
including leading industry groups and representing the partner group at board
These improvements led to the firm being short-listed for the first women
awards hosted by the Confederation of British Industry, which recognise
organisations that are outstanding in promoting women.
‘To maintain momentum, we actively and regularly monitor performance around
gender diversity. Still, we won’t be resting on our laurels. We remain conscious
that more needs to be done to ensure parity of opportunity within Deloitte –
specifically that we are able to encourage more women into senior roles within
‘Women in society still carry the lion’s share of responsibility for child
rearing. We cannot and do not ignore this at Deloitte,’ Vale says. Nor should
FACT OR FICTION?
The experts’ view
We asked Harish Bhayani, ex Arthur Anderson consultant who now runs the
diversity training and culture change company ProActive Reputation Management,
to comment on this research.
It’s interesting that a significant number (35%), albeit a minority, don’t
think that formal diversity programmes are having any real effect. It would be
interesting to know what the spread of views is within each organisation.
In my experience there is either widespread cynicism or widespread support in
organisations. However sometimes opinions can vary significantly across
different departments in the same organisation.
One of the biggest challenges organisations in all sectors face is the need
to get more people from under-represented groups into senior positions. So it is
not surprising to hear of employees’ frustrations regarding this.
These achievements are invariably harder to achieve than the relatively
simple task of recruiting more minorities into lower grade roles. In part this
is because a much more significant internal culture change is required to
facilitate the promotion of minorities into senior roles.
My personal experience is that in fee earning organisations there is actually
more diversity, perhaps because career progression is much more directly linked
to fee generating performance there is less scope for unfair discrimination to
The whole issue of long hours’ culture and flexible working is a major issue
in most professional services organisations.
These organisations will not successfully address the diversity challenge
until they find ways to engineer truly ‘guilt and blame free’ flexible working.
The cynicism around diversity efforts usually occurs because of some
inconsistency in trying to make the change, for example leaders not walking the
Also, as we know all too well from our experience, most organisations are
better at theorising about change initiatives than making them work in practice.
Our advice is always the same ensure you know as much about how to effect
organisational change as you do about what you want to change.
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