The 30% Club is coming to Australia, but ‘men speaking for women’ may miss the point

The UK’s 30% Club is coming to Australia. Flickr/Dennis Skley, CC BY

Launched in the United Kingdom in 2010 with the aim of increasing women’s board representation, the 30% Club will launch an Australian chapter in May this year. The local arm of the organisation aims to increase the number of women on the boards of ASX 200 companies by 2018.

Founded by Helena Morrissey, the organisation takes an anti-quota, business-led approach by lobbying the (mostly male) chairs and CEOs of listed companies to commit to improving gender balance at the top table.

A recent Dealbook column in the New York Times approvingly suggests the group has been instrumental in helping to “almost double” women’s board representation on listed UK companies since 2010 (although it is difficult to see where the NYT’s figure of raising representation from 12% to 23% comes from, as the 2014 Davies Review Annual Report in the UK puts the figure at 20.7% for FTSE 100 companies, up from in 12.5% in 2011).

On joining this club, senior male leaders are only asked to “believe in the value of diversity”, not to make any tangible commitment to actually promote women to senior roles or boards. Membership does not require a commitment to achieving the 30% representation, nor any accompanying actions aimed at improving diversity.

Undoubtedly, targeted, persuasive messaging to better engage senior male business leaders is absolutely critical to making gender balance the norm in the senior ranks of organisations. However, the snail’s pace of progress challenges the apparent success of these initiatives.

Elitist “men’s clubs”

Any attempt to promote the issue of organisational diversity is laudable. It is a welcome change to hear prominent CEOs talking publicly about topics such as unconscious bias, and positioning diversity as a core business issue.

The Australian Human Right’s Commission’s (AHRC) Male Champions of Change (MCC) initiative is a local example of this kind of “men speaking up for women” movement.

As Commissioner Liz Broderick recently pointed out, the MCC provides strong visible leadership on the issue of diversity, and proponents insist the initiative is much more than just a self-congratulatory talk-fest. However, in the absence of firm commitments to specific actions, how can a group of mostly white, middle-class, middle-aged, and well-educated men avoid becoming an ideological echo chamber, mirroring each other’s concerns but neglecting to engage with the issues at a brass-tacks level.

The Male Champions of Change have just released their first “report card”, and it shows that companies headed by a third of them (eight of the 25 members) achieved as below average results in at least one of the WGEA’s diversity performance benchmarks. Commissioner Broderick rightly points out that change is more likely where a senior leader is involved.

However, she also highlights a weakness for these initiatives; that change is dependent on the direct intervention of individual leaders. If our diversity achievements remain dependent on the “passion projects” of individuals, then progress risks being unpredictable, and ultimately unsustainable.

When it comes from moving beyond traction, and toward action, the tougher questions of whether diversity will ever rate as a pressing organisational performance issue (up there with revenue and sales for example), are unlikely to be tackled in these private members clubs. Indeed it is hard not to notice that these group do not exactly exemplify the kind of diversity they aim to promote.

If diverse groups perform better (and the evidence very strongly suggests that they do), then surely these “CEO clubs” could benefit from embracing a broader membership. Perhaps this is why the comforting rhetoric does not seem to be matched by concrete action.

In fact, when it comes to driving concrete action, we risk going backwards. The Prime Minister Tony Abbott will be signing on to the popular HeForShe initiative, another of those campaigns where high prolfile men get to tout their diversity credentials.

At the same time, his government has announced that it will streamline the Workplace Gender Equality Agency’s (WGEA) mandatory gender diversity reporting requirements. Specifically, it will remove the “most onerous” aspects relating to remuneration, and monitoring of job applications and interviews, requirements that the previous government had scheduled to introduce in April of this year, a move many see as a watering down of organisations’ responsibilities.

This comes at a time when the very data collected by the WGEA shows a widening pay gap. If the old adage “what gets measured, gets managed” is even partly true, then organisations are will soon have even fewer reasons to be bold on the diversity challenge.

Men speaking for women

While there is no reason men cannot be valued advocates for women’s advancement, there is also no denying that many working in the diversity domain see these initiatives as exclusive, often invitation-only affairs, where senior men engage in mutual admiration of their commitment to the cause. We know that the messenger is a critical determinant of the success of the message. If engaging men is important, and it arguably is, then who better to communicate the diversity message than senior male role models.

Indeed, when high profile women business leaders speak publicly on the need for greater diversity, they are often dismissed as self-interested. The issue is less about the value of men speaking for women, and more about what all this speaking is achieving. Engaging men is important, but accurate information and tangible initiatives are arguably even more so.

Recent research by the 100% Project, an Australian not-for-profit aimed at increasing organisational gender balance, suggests that a significant number of people who do not believe in quotas, or that gender discrimination exists, changed their views after reading statistics on women’s representation. The same research also shows that it is overwhelmingly men who do not believe that gender discrimination exists (almost 60%, compared with only 13% for women). Similarly, the Marks Sattin Equality Report released recently reveals that only 32% of men believe there is a gender pay gap, compared to almost 70% of women.

Given these observations, we clearly need to better engage men in the process. There’s also no doubting the importance of hearing men’s voices in the diversity debate, particularly since the senior executives controlling the budgets to fund organisational programs are still predominantly male. Engaging men an essential part of the process, but we should be wary of coming to believe that the problem has been solved just because we hear high profile captains of industry applauding their diversity achievements in public more often.

Less talk, more action

In my organisational work, the constant refrain from the mostly HR professionals tasked with the challenge of effecting practical change, is one of “Yes, we already agree with the rhetoric, but how do we make it real?”. One might point out that this is progress in itself. There was a time, not very long ago when many senior executives did not necessarily agree with the rhetoric, let alone aspire to achieving change.

But I suspect that there is a cluster of frustrated HR professionals out there dearly wishing they could corner their Male Champion of Change CEO for five minutes to explain why the diversity and inclusion gains they publicise have not necessarily translated into real improvements. Perhaps these leaders need to hear a broader (more diverse) range of voices. The issue may be more one of style over substance, and many diversity practitioners would argue that the time for substance is well any truly here. Less talk, more action.