Chris Sargisson of Norfolk Chamber: Why the issue of gender has to be higher on your agenda

PUBLISHED: 06:30 30 October 2018 | UPDATED: 06:51 30 October 2018

Chris Sargisson, Norfolk Chamber of Commerce new chief executive.

Chris Sargisson, Norfolk Chamber of Commerce new chief executive. Picture: ANTONY KELLY

Archant Norfolk 2018

Norfolk cannot afford to be left behind when it comes to gender equality, writes Chris Sargisson, chief executive of Norfolk Chamber of Commerce.

Are we there yet? No…

My question is not related to that plaintive enquiry from the back seat during a long car journey. It’s about another journey.

The one that will take us from the outdated and male dominated demographic of boardrooms to a place that’s better balanced and more representative of society.

So often, and happily, I write in this column about the ways in which Norfolk’s businesses lead the field. On this critical issue, frankly, we don’t.

I was reminded of this the other day when our new Chamber president, Fiona Ryder, made her inaugural speech.

She said: “I don’t think there would be a business in Norfolk that would think we’re there yet in terms of an inclusive corporate culture. Whil I firmly believe in meritocracy, given the often disproportionate number of men to women in senior roles, perhaps businesses need to question the soundness of their meritocracies. 
“If we want to attract the best and brightest talent of the future we need to modernise our culture too.”

MORE: Better gender equality in Norfolk’s boardrooms is key aim for new Chamber president

She’s absolutely right. The evidence is quite clear. Modernising our corporate culture to be more inclusive produces better economic outcomes.

And yet we still falter. It’s not that there has been no progress. In 2011 just 12.5% of FTSE 350 companies had women on their boards.

By 2018 that has doubled to 25%. But, most of those appointments are non-executive. And it’s still only 25%.

Are attitudes changing? Most certainly they are. Recently, for instance, Legal and General shareholders advised their board that they would not support the re-election of their chair, unless the board became much more diverse.

The fact is that changing that situation is about the culture. Fiona herself quoted Brenda Trenowden, global chair of the 30% Club, who said: “The only way to truly develop the pipeline of executive women is to radically change the culture to be more inclusive. You can have as many diverse initiatives as you like and recruit lots of diverse candidates, but without a truly inclusive culture, none of it sticks. CEOs that don’t understand and address this, will find that their firms are left behind.”

I don’t like to think of Norfolk businesses being left behind. We are leaders in so many ways, delivering world class products and services. And yet, here we are, lagging behind in this vital area of commercial development.

It seems odd to me that when, as businesses, we embrace changes in techniques and technology so readily; when we innovate and create so frequently, we somehow fail to address and implement the issue of gender balance.

It’s not about removing the concept of meritocracy. It’s most definitely about finding the best, brightest and the right person for the role. But let’s address the issue while being ever mindful of the need for that balance.

In short, a better balanced and diverse board, and team, makes for better business. You need to have gender high on your agenda.

Are we there yet? No.

But we’re making it happen.

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