Discrimination by any other name

Anyone who read my piece a few issues ago, on quotas, will understand my position on forced discrimination and so may be able to predict my starting position, regarding preferential treatment for the prioritised funding of women-led businesses.

This does not mean that I am against balance, equity and fairness, in fact the opposite is true. I am absolutely in favour, passionately, of all of these values. I can, if requested, provide examples from my own work that support my position.

Now, I would like to take this discussion a step further, or at least broader, in this piece.

So, to the question of funding. Should women’s enterprise and/or women-led business propositions be given preferential treatment for Government funding and loans? Unsurprisingly I respond in the negative; and why?

Firstly, I do not believe in discrimination in any form, positive or negative. If one wants to change the image seen in the mirror, one deals with the source and not the reflection. I do believe that by creating a system as unfair and biased as the one we are trying to change, the perceived “boys club”, by creating a “womens club” is fundamentally wrong. What I am talking about here is the method of achieving balance, not the issue itself.

Should there be more diversity on Boards? Yes. But this is NOT simply an issue of forcing the inclusion of just women; how many Boards are reflectively multi-cultural or multi-ethnic in proportion to our society? Women are NOT the only group “excluded” from these elite boys gangs, the vast majority of men are too. In fact, I know many men who choose NOT be part of these testosterone-filled, red-braced alpha-male cliques. Unfortunately, in my experience, it is usually the good guys that avoid these groups and for many of the reasons that we are trying to encourage: equity, fairness, trust, respect and authenticity. Not all men are stereotypical “blokes” or alpha-males; many are caring, compassionate, excellent communicators, empathetic and fair.

From a funding perspective, surely the funds should be channelled to the most socially-beneficial and value-driven business propositions. A business that adds value to, not only its shareholders or owners, male or female, but equally to its customers and community, its staff, its environment and through its supply chain. A business that is not only marketing itself as ethical or social, but one that has firm and ratified social benefits formalised and legislated within its operations and activities and not just in its PR releases?

If we are to discriminate positively on which businesses receive support, then surely our terms of reference need to be socially-positive across all stakeholders and NOT simply because the Executive is made up of one specific gender or the other.

Any investor will require a return. Surely it would make more sense and add more value to more people if we required all business loans (Public and Private) to be formally tied into community, civic, social and environmental benefit. Common Wealth, if you will. This way, the most social/community beneficial business enterprises will attract the most funding and investment; once you realise that sustainability is NOT just about being “green” but about long term satisfaction of ALL stakeholders, equally, ethically and equitably, then it is easy to see that this is a fundamentally better way to achieve balance and effective diversity in society as a whole and not just within sections of it.

Many good business ideas require funding to start up. Discriminating which get funding by virtue of the gender of the entrepreneurs presenting the proposition is a fundamentally flawed premise. Private business has to make surplus to survive in the long term. How the surplus is made and how it is distributed is surely a better place to start any investment assessment. If you do not operate efficiently and profitably as an enterprise and are permanently dependent upon external financing, the chances are that you are a charity or a hobby. Both of which are essentially “good”, but they are not commercial enterprises. The solution is to make commercial enterprise more socially accountable and, in fact, social enterprise more commercially aware. More ethically-oriented business models are required that incorporate genuine and lasting change for Common Wealth; enterprise models that we can all contribute to and benefit from.

The above paragraphs refer to private business enterprise. Maybe the answer to our question lies elsewhere, or at least in the first instance? Maybe the first steps to delivering real diversity lies within the Public Sector. Private enterprise is just that, private individuals seeking private rewards from essentially private investors. These ventures will select the best resources for their respective aims and if a particular proposition, person or cause, merits their priority, they do have the fundamental right to choose that resource. You do, I do, and they do. THIS is the free market.

In the public sector, however, their raison d’etre is to serve the public. It is potentially the ideal environment in which to encourage full diversity and representation. So too our political organisations. So why is it that these hallowed institutions are not leading the way? Why is the Cabinet mainly men? Do all local Council Executives reflect their respective societies? If not, why not? We vote for them don’t we? We can directly influence the membership can’t we? Is it that these, our public servants and representatives, are not themselves reflecting our true wishes for equality and fairness? Or is it that women do not see these roles as attractive or influential? I don’t know but I do think that there are valid and valuable questions to be asked in this environment as much as there are to questioning the mix of private enterprise Board Rooms.

Finally, and I hope to lighten the tone a little, I would like to finish with a quote that I heard on the Radio recently from comedian Ed Byrne (I think!). The discussion was on this topic, or women’s representation in the Boardroom anyway, and the comedian made this point when asked about the glass ceiling or the sticky carpet, as it has become termed (I paraphrase):

“…the thing is about this glass ceiling is that if its true, at least women have a valid excuse for not reaching the top; me, I wake up every morning to the damning realisation that I am not Alan Sugar and I have no excuse for not being like him.”

I hope you get the point.

This article was published in the3rdimagazine on 28 April 2013

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