I have spent the last few days feeling a little like Arthur in The Italian Job. Michael Caine’s Charlie Croker counts down and watches Arthur blow up … the whole van.
“You are only supposed to blow the bloody doors off!”: Croker quips in one of the most memorable lines from cinema history.
Here is why!
On Tuesday 15 June 2021, I learnt about an exciting research undertaken by Women on Boards UK (full report here) into FTSE All-Share companies below the FTSE 350 and the state of gender and ethnicity on their boards. It was under embargo until Wednesday 16 June. BBC wanted to do a human angle story to go with the report. I support Women on Boards in their mission to bring more women to boards. A phone conversation and a mad scramble for a photo – landscape, high resolution please – later it was all set. Then I wrapped up my day and went to bed.
The goal was to wake early and catch Fiona Hathorn, CEO of Women on Boards UK on Radio 4 Today in the business section, preceded by my 30sec segment.
The reality turned out quite differently.
I woke up at 2am to get some water and my Whatsapp was full of messages from friends in Asia who had already caught the first story on the front page of the BBC Business website (later in the day there was a second story which clarified some of the earlier comments).
Then a post went up on LinkedIn, and my notifications blew up.
Slowly several of my former students shared the article further with their own personal reflections attached. One wrote about her experience of growing up in a matrilineal society in the north-east of India, and how that shaped her views on inclusion and diversity.
My Cambridge college (a college for mature women students when I was there), my stellar Cambridge friends, my old Quora friends, the Association of Investment Companies , the Corporate Governance Institute were suddenly all talking about it endorsing the comment I made about “structural exclusion” faced by women and minorities.
The founder of Elevate City, a network that promotes gender equality and the voices of senior women executives in finance, and the cofounder of CandidateX, an organisation that uses a talent intelligence programme to advance inclusion both found my comments echoed their vision.
Several past and present clients reached out too.
The real surprise was the huge number of emails from people I did not know. Many came via the contact form on this website, and many came straight to the LinkedIn inbox (in a way this post is also an apology for delays in responding as I deal with the huge numbers of incredibly personal emails that deserve thoughtful responses not a stock “thanks for writing!”). They wrote movingly how they felt seen and heard.
Suffice to say the full force of the power of mass media was being felt. The scale, the reach, the amplification are all something to behold.
Notably in the many communiques and social posts, the focus disproportionately was on the “messenger” (me) rather than on the “message” (the explosive report published by Women On Boards that I was supporting). That was disappointing.
It is clear the BBC articles struck a chord. Structural discrimination and exclusionary behaviours by gatekeepers to jobs and board roles is very much a widely-experienced reality in the UK. Put more kindly, the gatekeepers are failing to communicate clearly or widely the commitment their client companies and boards may have towards wider inclusion. Equally, experienced headhunters find that if the commitment to inclusion does not have wider buy-in in the organisation, the hiring process at any level becomes more and more difficult and bias-ridden.
My experiences mentioned therein are from over two decades ago when recruiting was largely manual and not so automated. Almost nobody heard back from companies that said they were “keeping your CV on file and should any roles open in the future, we will be in touch”.
The real issues will become more challenging as the automated, social-credit future arrives and settles in.
Picture yourself a young person whose CV will almost certainly be first sifted by an automated algorithm, which often goes by an innocuous sounding name “applicant tracking systems“. It solves the scale problem for the hiring company even though hiring managers admit that many good candidates are slipping through the net. When we layer this kind of automation on top of most hiring being happenstance, we are exacerbating the talent problem organisations face.
Picture yourself now a potential board director. It goes without saying that if your job is to provide oversight to an organisation using technology and automation in decision-making, you yourself need to be pretty tech savvy. You need to understand enterprise technology, cyber issues, automated decision support systems and their shortcomings, possibilities for override and fraud just to name a few things. Research with bank boards suggests that only one in ten board directors have any tech expertise. In other words, there is likely a notable gap between use of automation and board-level scrutiny brought to it.
For both employee and board director candidates, social credit can become an invisible factor they are judged on.
“We are not China!“, you say? “Not yet“, is what I would say to you. Change is afoot. Here’s an example.
As Uber and Lyft drivers find it harder and harder to make income though consumers pay higher prices as VC subsidies for rides end, we are going to see alternative mechanisms for income in this part of the gig economy so many of us have got used to. Recently a company Alfi placed 10,000 digital tablets in rideshare cabs. It is claimed that these tablets will use “computer vision to “recognize the demographics of the rider” and serve them “personalized content as well as advertisements.” Drivers are promised a revenue share of “up to $350” so long as passengers actually engage with the content or ads“.
With me so far? What happens if you switch off the tablet because you do not want the noise? You have just kicked an income opportunity for the driver who will promptly lower your rider score and you may find yourself unable to use Uber in the future.
Now imagine this kind of “social scores” from your many interactions being used to determine your personability, your being in touch with the market, your networks, your emotional regulation — and then that information being used in the board director hiring process as director risks grow and boards become more and more cautious about hiring other directors. This happens already — headhunters and boards do both formal and informal reference checking — but it is not at scale and is not automated. Yet.
Structural discrimination and exclusion, in other words, are getting embedded and hard-coded in our world in ways limited only by human imagination.
And we have barely scratched the surface with true inclusion even on protected characteristics.
As board directors, we need to understand the tech-enabled, rapidly changing context of our work and our future. And how we determine our talent needs, and then reach, surface, find, recruit, and retain that talent. Structural exclusion will cut us off at the knees in this context.
More than just the doors were blown off by the Women On Boards report and the coverage — that much is clear.
Meaningful and sustainable change, to build true inclusion – which will mean many different ways of addressing “differences” and realising the value of those differences — will disrupt the “self preservation society” of the status quo on boards and in executive suites.
To make it a reality, we need to “get a bloomin’ move on!”.
(Disclaimer: These are my own views and do not reflect the views of the boards of JP Morgan US Smaller Co.s Investment Trust or Temple Bar Investment Trust or London Metropolitan University, where I serve as a non-exec director, and chair various committees at the time of writing.)