On International Women’s Day (8 March), Serena von der Heyde FIH MI makes the case for affirmative action to achieve greater diversity in the boardrooms of the hospitality industry
Like a lot of people, I don’t like quotas – I don’t think they are fair – but recently I have started to think again. Nearly 60% of the UK workforce in our industry are women yet only just over 20% of our managers are women, and these figures have been almost static for more than 20 years. We know that businesses with more women leaders are more successful and more profitable, so why aren’t companies rushing to develop and promote them? The benefits of diversity are proven, but still progress in achieving diversity is glacially slow.
We want a fair workplace for our young women and men, and optimum performance for our businesses, and yet a compelling business case has failed to bring about change; then should we consider quotas?
Quotas have been shown to get results, and fast. They have been used across Europe to promote women in politics and business since Norway started in 2003. Many countries including Iceland, France, Spain and now Germany have followed suit, and the numbers of board-level women have risen in those countries. What’s more, there is some evidence that where quotas have been in use for some time, diversity becomes self-fulfilling. The culture and infrastructure has changed to the extent that women and men are coming through to leadership levels in equal numbers. In Belgium, the quota system states that both sexes must be represented for applications for roles in politics, and recently it is male applicants that have been hard to recruit. For quotas to work, they need to come with strict repercussions. In France, businesses were threatened with de-regulation if they failed to meet quotas. In Spain there were no sanctions for not meeting quotas, and as a result Spain has been far less successful. Quotas without teeth are ineffective.
One of the main arguments against quotas is that they prevent promotion on merit. We want the best leaders for our businesses regardless of gender. But I challenge the notion that our meritocracy is working. If it was, wouldn’t we already have more women leaders? The truth is that our societal and cultural background is failing to provide a level playing field for our aspiring women leaders. More women than men are graduating from our universities, and, on average, women have better grade degrees, but still we overlook their talents. It is becoming clear that we have to learn diversity – it takes time for a culture to genuinely believe in the value of diversity, and then to implement processes that nurture it.
There is a difference between quotas and targets, in terms of delivering change; quotas enforce where targets incentivise. Personally, I believe that people learn better and change more when they can set their own agenda. Every business will have different issues affecting diversity, and real change is most effective when a strategy is developed specifically by the team for that business. When regulations are imposed, teams spend half their efforts working on strategies to sidestep the new rules, and quotas can result in alienating the team.
For my own business, where we need to develop male leaders to ensure diversity, I will be:
- Ensuring full and ongoing commitment to diversity from the leadership
- Leading the development of our diversity strategy and targets
- Publishing gender pay differences, and recording gender balance across the team and our leadership team
This type of approach gives businesses time to develop a pipeline of talented women (or in our case men), so that they can make quality appointments and showcase successful women within the business. I believe that hospitality businesses should be recording gender balance, monitoring gender pay gaps and publishing their own targets and strategy for diversity. However, if these initiatives prove inadequate, then it is time to consider resorting to the faster, but blunter tool of quotas.
Serena von der Heyde FIH MI is the owner of The Georgian House Hotel, London