25 April 2017

  |  CBI Press Team

Press release

Workplace diversity at risk of 'going backwards'

CBI Director-General Carolyn Fairbairn speaks on the importance of inclusive workplaces at our diversity and inclusion conference

The CBI is urging businesses to make swifter progress on creating more inclusive workplaces and to not allow this to slip down the agenda in the face of competing priorities. The UK’s leading business group will argue that greater diversity in the workplace is not just a matter of fairness, but a hard-nosed business case in the face of major changes in demographics and technology.

In a speech at Simmons & Simmons in London (a CBI event sponsored by Boston Consulting Group), Carolyn Fairbairn CBI Director-General, said:

On the slow progress

“Progress towards inclusive workplaces must pick-up the pace. And I’m not just talking about gender. I’m talking about every kind of diversity – ethnicity, social background, sexual orientation, age.

“We need to use what we know works and make it the norm in all our businesses.

“Not as a footnote to other priorities, but as a top strategic priority for our country.

“It is only going to become more important, as we head into a perfect storm of changes in demographics and technology that will make talent the number one worry for our firms. For many it already is. 

“In part it’s a simple numbers game as labour supply in this country is tightening. Whatever the impact of leaving the EU, there are likely to be fewer EU migrants coming to work in the UK than in the past. At the same time the UK’s domestic labour force is shrinking as the baby boomers retire, making it even harder for firms to find the right people.

“It’s also in part a skills game as having the right skills for the future is firms’ leading source of competitive advantage. Automation and digital technologies are a real chance to improve our productivity, currently the third lowest in the G7.

“Government has a role, but this is mostly down to us. We must speed things up.

On the real risk of going backwards

“At times of great change and we are most certainly in one priorities compete and things can go backwards. It can be too easy to let things slip down a list, perhaps even to seek comfort in the familiar, people like you and not different from you.

“We are seeing some early warning signs that should concern us. The Davies Review did a great job increasing the share of board jobs going to women from 1 in 7 to 1 in 3. But in the last year this has fallen back to 1 in 4.

“And while there were 18 women CEOs in the FTSE350 in 2015, today we’ve slipped back to just 16.

“I worry progress in other areas may reverse if economic headwinds grow. In tougher times, a search for experience might well end up being a search in a traditional pool, closing the door on greater inclusion.

“Only committed leadership can win against this and is why it matters so much.

On the business case

“In my view this remains one of the defining issues of our age. How we make ours an economy for everyone, and use this as a source of advantage for the UK, as I believe it can and should be.

“Of course, this is about fairness, a very important word in today’s environment. But it’s also about hard-nosed competitiveness.

“I’d like it to be up in lights in the new Industrial Strategy, the business case for diversity and inclusion is rock solid. Firms with the highest levels of gender diversity are 15% more likely to outperform their rivals. While those companies with the highest levels of ethnic diversity are 35% more likely to do so.

On the importance of business leadership

“It isn’t a question of only changing the picture on boards, or of a focus on one group.

“It is about building inclusive workplaces that harness the best innovation and productivity the British workforce can offer because people feel accepted, supported and have opportunities to thrive.

“We of course know that real change will take more than stated commitment. The more I see of what works, the more it’s clear me to that leadership is the key.

“It is the constant action, worrying, questioning, suggesting, frankly nagging, by leaders that makes the biggest difference. It’s because progress is about no one thing, no silver bullet. It takes leadership, constant and unflinching.”