I was the first one in the boardroom overlooking Sydney harbour, ready to deliver a presentation to a potential new client on neural rhythms and innovation as I watched what looked like the same person entering one after another until all of the seats were finally filled.
It’s a bizarre world we live in where I could walk downstairs and buy lunch from one of ten different cultures, yet the same old pale, male faces continue to dominate the upper echelons of corporate leadership. I was meeting with one of the fastest growing companies in Australia, and despite the undeniable progress that has been made towards diversity and inclusion in recent years, they were representative of the same faces I’d seen for most of my career dealing with executives. It’s safe to say, that the stale pale male regime remains firmly in place.
Let’s not mince words here, folks. The lack of diversity in corporate leadership is a major problem. Now, let me be clear – I couldn’t care less about the optics. What I care about is the real-world impact that this homogeneity has on the bottom line. Numerous studies have shown that diverse teams are more innovative, make better decisions, and are more profitable than their less diverse counterparts. Yet, the same tired old faces continue to hold the reins of power.
It’s not that there aren’t qualified candidates out there who would bring a fresh perspective to the boardroom. The issue is that these candidates are often overlooked in favour of the same old boys’ club. It’s a vicious cycle: the lack of diversity at the top perpetuates the status quo, which in turn makes it harder for diverse candidates to break through. It’s not that people don’t want diversity – it’s just that it can’t happen without a substantial proactive shift.
This is not just a matter of fairness and social justice, although those are important considerations in their own right. This is about making sure that companies are making the best possible decisions for their shareholders, customers, and employees. If a company’s leadership team all look and think alike, it’s unlikely that they’ll be able to come up with the creative solutions needed to tackle the complex challenges of the modern business world.
The irony is that the benefits of diversity are well-documented. Companies with more diverse leadership teams consistently outperform their less diverse peers. Studies have shown that companies in the top quartile for gender and ethnic diversity are 25% and 36% more likely, respectively, to have financial returns above their national industry medians. That’s not an insignificant amount of money.
So, why do we continue to see the same faces at the top? There are a few different factors at play here. One is simply a lack of awareness. Many leaders are well-intentioned, but they simply don’t realise the extent to which their unconscious biases are impacting their hiring and promotion decisions. There’s also the issue of groupthink, where leaders are more comfortable working with people who are like them and think like them. This creates an echo chamber where new ideas are less likely to be heard.
Then there’s the issue of pipeline. There’s no question that there are systemic barriers that prevent certain groups from advancing up the corporate ladder. Women, people of colour, and other underrepresented groups often face a “glass ceiling” that can be difficult to break through. This is compounded by the fact that many leadership positions require a certain amount of experience in similar roles, which can be difficult for people who have been excluded from those roles in the past.
So, what can be done to break the stale pale male regime? Firstly, companies need to make a conscious effort to increase diversity in their leadership ranks. This means taking a hard look at their current practices and making changes where necessary. It also means prioritising diversity in their recruitment efforts, and actively seeking out candidates from underrepresented groups.
Leaders themselves need to be more aware of their own biases, and take steps to address them. This might mean participating in unconscious bias training, or simply making a conscious effort to challenge their own assumptions and prejudices.
Finally, we need to work to address the systemic barriers that prevent certain groups from advancing in their careers. This means increasing access to education and training, and creating more opportunities for people from underrepresented backgrounds to gain the experience they need to advance in their careers.
It’s not going to be easy to break the stale pale male regime. It’s entrenched, and there are powerful forces working to maintain the status quo. But we can’t afford to give up. And I know what you’re wondering, did we end up working with these pale males? You bet we did. Nobody’s perfect. And if we don’t engage, we can’t make change. And these guys are trying to change, and that’s a damn good start!
The future is uncertain, but one thing is sure: we’ll be there, fighting the good fight.