In a frank discussion with business leaders ahead of International Women’s Day, Barbara-Ann King, Chief Commercial Officer of Investec Wealth & Investment, asked guests to share what they’ve learned about gender equality – and diversity more broadly – during the global pandemic.


Barbara-Ann, who is a passionate advocate for female empowerment, was joined by Esther Marlow, Financial Director of Carmel Clothing; Kirshni Totaram, Global Head of Institutional Business at Coronation Fund Managers; Sheila Flavell CBE, COO of FDM Group; and John Amaechi OBE, Founder of APS, to explore their experiences. Here are the main conclusions from the conversation.


1.    The pandemic has increased gender inequality – but presents an opportunity for change


Our guests acknowledged that the coronavirus pandemic had a negative impact on inclusion in the workplace. “In challenging times we see more issues around inclusion and diversity, because when businesses are stretched that priority moves lower down the list,” said Esther Marlow.


This has exacerbated the practical impact of the crisis. For example, the careers of women are more likely to be adversely impacted by coronavirus restrictions such as school closures. “We still have a large proportion of women who take responsibility for childcare. So Covid-19 has impacted their ability to get back to work. It’s set back the progress that has been made,” she added.


However, businesses can use this experience to re-evaluate how they operate. “We’re looking at restarting as though we are a new start-up,” Esther explained. “We’re asking ourselves ‘what does the world look like now and how do we stay relevant?’”


On a positive note, many organisations have recognised that they have a greater responsibility to help others. “It’s important that companies in a position of privilege play a bigger role in supporting the broader community,” noted Kirshni Totaram.


Part of this commitment involves supporting the existing workforce. “You have to be mindful that your staff are people going through real experiences,” she said. “As a business you need to put in place significant levels of support and training, and to let people know it’s okay to not be coping right now.”

IWD calll
Business leaders discuss diversity at Investec virtual roundtable

We’re asking ourselves ‘what does the world look like now and how do we stay relevant?

2.    To improve gender diversity, we need to focus on the talent pipeline


It was agreed that nurturing the talent pipeline is a crucial starting point when looking at diversity.


“The pandemic has helped us readdress the pipeline,” said Sheila Flavell CBE. This is because it has led to more online working and made location a less relevant hiring criteria. “I can’t see us going back to the office five days a week – we’ve had a mind-set shift. That means that now we can recruit people who perhaps couldn’t afford to come to London, Glasgow, Leeds or Birmingham before.”


For John Amaechi OBE, looking at an organisation’s values – and how they are expressed – helps attract diversity. “We need to recognise there are brilliant black and brown people or brilliant women who do meet hiring criteria, but if they’re not in a pipeline there’s a question to be asked around what they see in the organisation that tells them not to bother,” he said.


Barbara-Ann King agreed. “I’ve built up a career in banking and wealth management; what made me come to Investec is that diversity really is top of the agenda here.”


3.     Targets can be helpful – but aren’t a silver bullet


For many businesses, targets have an important role to play in counteracting a lack of diversity, particularly at a senior level.


John believes that although targets lack nuance, they are effective. “The only thing that has been shown to work in terms of inclusion is targets,” he commented. “We have to recognise that sometimes the tools required to solve a problem are necessarily blunt.


“Targets are essential because the criteria for advancement are not objective. We wouldn’t need to have targets if there was a meritocratic assessment process, which there is not, unfortunately.”


Other guests noted, however, that targets cannot be a silver bullet. “It’s easy to get carried away with headline stats, which is what we have to report on,” said Kirshni. “But it doesn’t necessarily address an inclusive nature in the company.”


Additionally, Esther highlighted that targets may not be effective if a business does not have a leadership team in place that takes the matter seriously. “I have mixed feelings about targets,” she admitted. “I’ve come to the conclusion that unless you have people in power that prioritise diversity, it doesn’t change.”


4.    Flexibility is good for gender equality – and performance


The pandemic has affected ways of working and flexibility can make roles more accessible to women or other underrepresented groups. “We’re now judging on performance rather than presenteeism,” said Sheila.  


This has a tangible effect on retention too, agreed Esther. “It’s about how we value things. You build loyalty by investing in people, and respecting their lives.” She called talent a ‘long-term investment’ while Sheila added: “We have to rewrite the playbook. Covid-19 has really challenged the narrative and what we think to be fact. Often restrictions are placed because that’s the way it’s always been done.”


Cultivating flexibility is the responsibility of company leadership. “It has to come from the top and cascade down,” said Sheila. However, the workplace is just one element that can support a diverse and inclusive society. Giving the example of parental leave, she explained: “Couples must decide for themselves who is going to look after the child, that’s not up to us, but we can give them the policy that allows them to do that.”


5.    Inclusion and diversity must be a daily discussion


Progress on diversity and inclusion must be ongoing and in John’s opinion, organisations must review their policies frequently. “It seems so obvious, but most organisations do not consider refreshing their policies regularly,” he said.


This is more important than ever in these transformative times. “As a business we don’t have the mind-set that things will go back to normal; things have fundamentally changed,” stated Esther. And when it comes to diversity, as Investec host Barbara-Ann King concluded: “there’s an awful lot more work to do.”