Diversity? Why Still Bother?

15/12/2016By Dr Esther Cavett
Dr Esther Cavett reflects on over 20 years as a City banking lawyer and her work with the City Mothers mentoring scheme.
Diversity and Inclusion

Diversity is very much in the public eye and there’s lots to read about it.  A good starting point is Diversity UK’s website.  In addition, a report, published in March of this year under the then Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government, revealed that British businesses are making great strides towards the 25% target for women on FTSE 100 boards set by Lord Davies in 2011.

So what is there to add to this wealth of information and backdrop of triumphalism? Well, first a note of caution and secondly I offer some personal reflections from my perspective of 25 years in the City. My observations reflect my career working full-time as a transactional lawyer in an international law firm, latterly as a partner running my own group, followed by my current role on the Operating Committee of Citymothers and Cityfathers a networking organization of over 6500 members – all working parents in ‘City’ professions, and also my work as an executive coach.  I focus here purely on gender diversity, whilst acknowledging we need better ethnic diversity too, as well as support and understanding for people with a range of disabilities, if we are to have a fairer and more prosperous society.

My note of caution is that as the then-Business Secretary Vince Cable noted, in reference to the latest Davies report,

“Our work is not complete. British business must keep its eye on the long game, as we strive to achieve gender parity”.

And separate reports note that though the situation seems improved for the FTSE 100 companies, smaller businesses still have a long way to go. Certainly experience running the Citymothers Mentoring Scheme (which currently caters for over 250 individuals) and hearing the stories of mentees and of my own coaching clients, supports this view.  There are many institutions and individuals out there who still have no hesitation about being far less than politically correct, such as the person who told a partnership candidate to take time off work whilst she had her second child and then return in a year or two in a part-time capacity because she couldn’t possibly ‘do it all’, or the boss who said he was sorry to hear my client was pregnant because she had been about to be promoted.

So on to my personal reflections.

1. Gendered language is not OK.

I can hear certain parts of this readership sighing and saying “surely women don’t want to be referred to as a piece of furniture?!”  Actually I do, if it means that, in the nominations committee I used to chair, it isn’t assumed, by means of the language used, that a board successor will be a man.  Some may think it funny or worse nit picking, that a distinguished ship classification society has only just decided to use “it” rather than “she” when referring to a ship, and removed the assumption from documents that a surveyor will always be a “he”, but I am proud of my daughter for instigating this.  Some may consider it is fine to use the masculine article in publications on the grounds that the Interpretation Act  1978, Section 6 states that “words importing the masculine gender include the feminine”, but in my view, unconscious bias begins with gendered rather than gender-neutral language, and needs to be rooted out.

2. Women definitely need to lean in, not out, and it helps to have role models to follow.

When I was an academic in Oxford in the 1980’s I recall asking my brilliant women undergraduate students if they believed they had suffered any sexual discrimination, and they answered robustly no. No need to lean in, they told me (or would have done if Sheryl Sandberg’s book had been written then). I thought to myself, “wait until you are a young mother”, as I was at the time where, as soon as your tummy bulged with a baby, it was assumed you’d stop work. Several years later I gave up my aspirations to become the first female professor (or even senior lecturer) in the UK in my discipline.

The lack of any role models was dispiriting–and so I went off to retrain as a City lawyer, not realising that from the diversity perspective it was out of the frying pan and into the fire.

I survived the fire, to become one of then fewer than 10% of women equity partners in my partnership of more than 500 individuals, and women who worked for me said I opened doors for them just by being there and getting on with my job.  I suspect the same may be true at psd as well, given its executive chair.

I have lost count of the number of occasions when clearly able women have said that they “don’t want the responsibility” of a senior position.  This is very convenient for those people at the top, who want highly talented bag carriers, but bad for business because, as we know, diversity is good for business.  Personally, the more senior I got, the more autonomy and flexibility I had; I also earned more so could afford to pay for a variety of childcare and domestic help in order to be effective in my role at work and at home. It was still hard work, but I certainly didn’t try to do it all, because that would have been unrealistic.

3. Guilt doesn’t help.

Fathers do (if they do-and actually more really want to).

To follow on from the last point, many Citymothers events aim to cater for the working mother, juggling trying to do the best at work and at home.  The underlying assumption is still that fathers are just there in the supporting role.  But why so?  The Scandinavian model is of equal parenting and equal parental leave; there a father is just as likely as a mother to be at home looking after the children.  Some Citymothers and indeed fathers seem to bribe their children to do housework and employ variously or even together a full-time housekeeper, nanny or au-pair (indeed I sometimes did).

I recently met a single mother of three children working in a prestigious City institution.  Her 13 year old cooks supper, the 12 year old washes up, they are all fiercely proud of their mother’s achievement and she supervises their homework by Skype.  No guilt, just being a good parent.

What role does guilt play? It inhibits women from getting out there and assuming that they have the right to the same kind of support and infrastructure as their male partners. Depending on one’s circumstances, some of that infrastructure will be paid for, some will come from one’s family and friends.

An event I chaired recently was a Cityfathers seminar aimed at equipping fathers-to-be and new fathers with better parenting skills.  There were lots of men there, a testament to how much they cared about their roles and places in their families.  I would suggest that men in many walks of life, and certainly in the City, need support-and endorsement–perhaps even more than women, in order to be fully engaged and connected fathers. The equal involvement of men and women in parenting, and their public affirmation of that joint role, is the key to a fairer future, a future with all its richness and diversity which is good for business too.  How parents choose to juggle the balance of home and work life is very much up to them, and it is not for anyone to judge who is the prime carer, male or female. Many of us know couples where both have had fulfilling careers and their children are happy and well-adjusted. It is possible; it should be the norm.

4. Why isn’t childcare high-quality, fully state provided and controlled and above all tax-deductible?

This, together with men working in an environment which gave them the confidence to take up shared parental leave, would produce a sea change.  One can only assume that it wouldn’t have won sufficient votes recently, and thus that the real political will isn’t yet there – hence the need to keep battling on.

To finish, lighten the tone, and to show that there are many other areas than the City which still need addressing, try googling first “great conductors of classical music images” and then look at what the world has been missing…


Dr Esther Cavett

Dr Esther Cavett


Dr Esther Cavett is a coach who specialises in working on career-related issues for those in business, education and the creative arts. Her website is www.esthercavettcoaching.co.uk; she was a City banking lawyer for over 20 years, and previously a professional musician.