In 2010, when The Financial Times published my letter to the Editor concerning the government’s desire to set quotas for female public body board appointments, I had no idea that more than a decade later I would be addressing an FT Live audience on the subject of disruption and gender diversity. I was delighted to have the opportunity to do this during last week’s Financial Times Women At The Top Europe conference.

Eleven years ago, the government’s aspiration to increase female representation was, of course, a step in the right direction, but one with potential to backfire through a combination of appointments for the wrong reason – based on gender alone – and the cultural immaturity in many organisations at that time with regard to the support provided for women throughout every stage of their careers.

Now, in 2021, and despite much progress in the intervening years, the ravages of the pandemic have set our progress back by a generation. The World Economic Forum’s 2021 Global Gender Gap Report, which benchmarks the evolution of gender-based gaps across a range of key indicators including education, economic and political empowerment, has declared that the expectation of the time to close the gender gap has grown from 99 to 135 years.

Concurrently, AlixPartners’ 2021 Disruption Index tells us that executives around the world see investment in technology as their primary strategic priority to counter the forces of disruption that businesses will be challenged by now and in the future. However, we know that women are hugely under-represented in the tech-focused jobs of tomorrow – 14% in cloud computing, 20% in engineering and 32% in artificial intelligence, for example – so this strategy may risk widening the gap even further unless the relevant industries focus their efforts on attracting more women.

COVID-19 gave rise to an unprecedented rise in workload, health risk and other challenges to work-life balance for women, such as home-schooling or providing care at home for long periods. Remote working was forced on those who could work from home and our study points to remote, hybrid working models now being seen as an attractive move to increase business agility during times of great uncertainty.

However, in pursuit of the perfect response to disruption, we must be very careful that we are not creating further gender inequality as well as failing to regain the ground we have lost with regard to gender diversity in the past 18 months.

Diversity is key to better business outcomes

While the headlines of days gone by – and unfortunately today – too often focus on the female headcount around boardroom tables, this is an issue that needs to be addressed throughout every level of any given profession, including executive, as well as non-executive, roles.

I wrote in 2010 that diverse thinking is what really matters if businesses are to succeed, and this message remains as relevant now as it was then, given the economic trials of recent years. Building a diverse workforce with an inclusive and welcoming culture is simply essential and, as part of that strategy, gender parity has to be built into any business’ broader recovery and growth plans.

Sometimes to force change we need to create disruption and there have been a number of initiatives in respect of gender diversity over the years, of which the government’s proposal to introduce quotas was just one. In my own area of specialism, dispute resolution, we have seen success with initiatives such as the ERA Pledge, which campaigns for equal representation of women as arbitrators. Six years ago, less than 10% of arbitrators sitting on tribunals were women, but this has now more than doubled to over 20%.

There’s an intrinsic benefit beyond the pursuit of parity in dispute resolution more broadly, as I believe that more diverse thinking and a greater degree of empathy might also result in some more pragmatic outcomes. This can help to rebuild the economy by giving many smaller businesses a better chance of recovery post-pandemic.

Doing nothing is no longer an option

For me, reflecting on a period of personal frustration from seeing our progress regress, I firmly believe that now is the time for more of us to create disruption to accelerate positive change in gender diversity, rather than simply being on the receiving end of disruption itself.

We all have a role to play in closing that gender gap, and can start by asking ourselves some tough questions – and then acting on our answers – whatever stage of our careers we may be at:

  • Ask yourself what you see as your organisation’s purpose and values, and how well you think these are communicated, understood and reflected by everyone in the business you work for.
  • Think about what you are doing personally to improve your organisation’s gender diversity efforts. If the answer right now is nothing, what could, or should you be doing?
  • Think about whether you and your peers are engaging your direct reports on this subject and what more could – or should – you do in this way to encourage more action.

As I stated back in 2010, this is not purely a challenge for senior business leaders – everyone has a responsibility to be more introspective on this issue and then take action. With our enduring quest for gender parity severely dented by disruption, doing nothing is simply no longer an option.