Six in ten business leaders do not think diversity is "important"

21 February 2018

Businesses can benefit significantly from a more diverse workforce, yet progress towards that end goal remains slow. A new study finds that business interest in diversity remains relatively low, at less than 50%, while concrete plans to improve conditions are even more sparse.

The impact of human diversity across the business ranks has increasingly come into focus in recent years. Normative concerns pertaining to fairness continue to reign, although a business case too can be made to boost diversity. One such study, recently delivered by The Boston Consulting Group showed that considerable benefits can be derived from diversity in innovation, while recent studies from Grant Thornton and McKinsey & Company point to a significant premium from more diversified businesses.

Change, however, remains slow. Aside from running into long-term planning blockages, such as a lack of diversity in current pipelines, business buy-in remains relatively low. Grant Thornton's latest 'Diversity Snapshot’, which comes as part of its wider International Business Report, found that around 11% of businesses have current plants to improve the ethnic diversity of their senior management team, while those that deem ethnic diversity as important to the success of their business in the future, sits at 31%.

 Number of ethnic groups represented by senior management team by region

Diversity in senior management differs considerably by region. African respondents were broadly the most diverse, while European respondents were the least. In total, the survey found that boardrooms in just six of the thirty-five countries surveyed were considered ethnically diverse.

The leader of the research, Kim Schmidt, Global leader, leadership, people and culture, at Grant Thornton International, commented, “Senior teams that continue to lack diversity are missing out on opportunities to improve their decision-making and performance. At a time when digitalisation is disrupting traditional business models, inclusive leadership teams that are willing to have their thinking and way of working challenged by a range of opinions from diverse backgrounds will be better equipped for success.”

Goals needed

One major issue identified by the study is a lack of translation of business goals into concrete plans to address imbalances. Despite a seemingly endless volume of data to suggest its benefits, and multiple initiatives from governments to push for diversity – such as legally mandated ethnicity pay gap reporting in the UK – just 40% of business leaders said that they actually consider ethnic diversity to be important. While this alarming figure suggests that the majority of global businesses do not think diversity is a priority, what is worse is that the survey found only 14% of organisations have a specific strategy in place to improve the senior leadership teams’ diversity.

 Regional differences in the number of businesses that consider diversity to be important

There were relatively similar statistics for gender and age diversity, meanwhile, with the former seen as important for business success by 38% of respondents, while the latter was seen as important by 51% of respondents. Concrete plans to tackle disparities in both areas, however, remain fleeting. Targets for gender stood at 14%, and age at 16%.

According to Grant Thornton’s researchers, one solution, particularly for those in the UK, is to talk about diversity as a whole, instead of limiting the discussion to a particular aspect. Senior leaders might choose to ask their employees about the kind of language they use themselves, making a diversity framework that everyone is comfortable with.

Scarlett Brown, a Senior Governance Analyst at Grant Thornton UK, explained that “the history of the country matters a great deal. In America, race has been an issue for a long time due to its culture, but here in the UK we’re very uncomfortable talking about it.”

Related: Wilshire Consulting initiative pushes for diversified asset management industry.