What Difference does Diversity Make?
The William Pitt Seminar is the flagship event of Pembroke’s Corporate Partnership Programme. The Tenth Annual William Pitt Seminar took place on Friday 16th October this year, with the theme ‘Being Different: What Difference Does Diversity Make?’ Patrick Voss, Dr Tom Shakespeare, Trevor Phillips and Professor Rae Langton were invited to speak on various topics relating to diversity, and the seminar was chaired by Vicky Bowman, who was one of the first women to matriculate at Pembroke College in 1984.
Guests arriving for the seminar were directed through Peterhouse’s old and beautiful courts to the Lubbock Room, where refreshments were served before the event. The new Master of Pembroke, Lord Chris Smith, was there to meet and mingle with the guests.
Fittingly, the event also served as a pre-launch for the publication of Excellence in Diversity: the History of Women at Pembroke College, Cambridge, and our Vision for the Future. This book was created to celebrate the 30-year anniversary of the admission of female students to Pembroke, an important landmark in the history of diversity at the college. Pembroke students Cinthia Willaman (2010), Stephanie Azzarello (2014) and Monica Wirz (2009), who helped to create the book over the course of the past year, were on hand to sign people up for pre-orders. A small display illustrated some aspects of the history of women at Pembroke.
At 4pm guests were shown into the Theatre. Around 150 people were in attendance, including alumni, current students and representatives from member companies of Pembroke’s unique Corporate Partnership Programme. Lord Chris Smith’s introductory speech reflected on the importance of diversity in society, drawing from his personal experiences as the UK’s first openly gay MP.
Vicky Bowman chaired the seminar. Having matriculated at Pembroke in 1984, the first year of women’s admission to the College, Vicky became the first female President of Pembroke’s Junior Parlour Committee. She was also the first female student to represent Pembroke in University Challenge, appearing as part of a team which also included Tom Shakespeare (1984).
The first speaker was Patrick Voss, the co-founder of the network and consultancy firm Radius Business, which explores and promotes diversity within business by focusing on its commercial value. At the heart of this goal is the question of the role of business itself – does a business exist to create money for its shareholders, to attract customers, or to provide innovation and drive new ways of thinking? The conflicting nature of management theories of business can make it more difficult to identify and promote the specific benefits of increased diversity within firms. Patrick’s presentation also included a range of interesting statistics concerning the Davis Review, which was set up in 2010 to look at female representation on the boards of FTSE 100 and FTSE 250 companies. The percentage of women on these boards rose from 12.5% in 2010-11 to 23.5% in 2015, for example, but the increase of female Chief Executives, Executive Directors and ‘Chairmen’ (as they are described in the report) was much more minimal. Patrick also mentioned that gender-diverse companies are 15% more likely to outperform competitors, while ethnically diverse companies are 35% more likely to do so. He explored the idea that making changes in the top tier – that is, promoting more female appointments to big boards and FTSE 100 companies – could filter down and lead to more women being appointed in other areas. Very little research has been done so far into the impact and views of diversity amongst teams, line managers and middle management, as opposed to on executive boards.
The next speaker was Dr Tom Shakespeare, who matriculated at Pembroke in 1984 along with Vicky Bowman. Tom is now a senior lecturer in medical sociology at Norwich Medical School. His presentation focused on the challenges faced by disabled people in the workplace and in society, making the point that many of these challenges are caused not by the person’s disability itself but by society’s approach to disability: “If you remove the prejudice, disabled people will flourish.” For example, many of the barriers faced by disabled people can easily be removed by making reasonable adaptations, such as including disabled access on public transport. Tom also made the interesting point that the number of disabled people in the workplace actually dropped after the introduction of the Disability Discrimination Act, since employers were unwilling to risk infringing the rights of workers who were now ‘protected’ by it. Disabled people are now twice as likely to be unemployed as non-disabled people, even though 12–15% of working-age people have some form of disability. Disabled people are also more likely to find work in the state sector than the private sector, and have thus been adversely affected by recent reductions in the size of the state. Employment figures can also mask other problems: when disabled people are in work, they tend to be concentrated in lower-occupation roles, not in management, an issue which Tom argued is largely to do with discrimination – disabled people are still more likely to be victimised in the workplace. People with mental health problems and learning difficulties are the most likely to be at a disadvantage, since employers are often unwilling to offer roles to those who are less able to work at high pressure. Tom also described recent government measures as creating “punitive restrictions on disabled people’s employment”, and argued that a just society should support people who can’t work or are limited in some way.
Trevor Phillips, the President of the Partnership Council of the John Lewis Partnership, spoke about current problems in tackling discrimination in the workplace. It can be hard to tell where unequal treatment is producing unequal outcomes; discrimination is often very subtle now, since “everybody knows what not to say.” Trevor also emphasised that improving the situation for one discriminated-against group does not necessarily improve it for others, as the reasons behind the discrimination can be very different – for example, discrimination against women is sometimes motivated by bosses, sometimes by job segregation, sometimes by the choices of the women themselves, and sometimes by issues we don’t fully understand. We also need to be mindful that improving, for instance, the ratio of women in management positions doesn’t have a knock-on negative effect on the numbers of black people in management positions. The impact of the media was also examined: in the case of Benedict Cumberbatch’s recent comments about discrimination against black actors in Hollywood, the actual point of his comment was largely drowned out by the media uproar over his use of the word ‘coloured’ – it “made every white person who wants to speak on issues of minority nervous”. Trevor also addressed the problem of whether discrimination on the grounds of race is automatically a bad thing. Evidence from the US shows that a patient is more likely to follow the suggested regime from a doctor or caregiver of the same ethnic background as themselves than otherwise; does this mean we should match people to caregivers on the grounds of race, in order to improve their healthcare provision, or would this be unacceptable?
The final speaker was Rae Langton, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Cambridge. She began by discussing the gender bias within the discipline of philosophy, which has fewer women in academic positions than almost any other subject, including maths and the sciences. A number of different reasons could be behind this – the “incredibly combative” culture of philosophical debates; the problem of mentors treating female students differently in order to “boost their confidence”, which holds them back in the long run because they receive less actual instruction than their male counterparts; implicit bias, which is the subconscious way in which humans differentiate between those who are the same as them and those who are different; and stereotype threat, which is when an individual directs an implicit bias against themselves and performs accordingly, unintentionally adjusting their behaviour to fit the stereotype of the type of person they are. Some of these problems can be combated by greater anonymity in selection processes and by raising awareness about implicit bias within society. Stereotyping creates serious problems for women within other sectors as well, since the tendency to assume that people from different backgrounds bring different perspectives and ideas is not necessarily true or helpful; women are often seen as being ‘caring’ and less likely to have wars, but this was hardly true of Margaret Thatcher. We also need to examine the thinking behind attempting to increase diversity: for example, the fact that greater gender diversity within a business leads to higher profits is a positive thing, but what if it didn’t?
The Chair then invited questions from the floor, and an hour of interesting discussion followed with each member of the panel given a chance to respond to every question. Ross Anderson, Professor of Security Engineering at the University of Cambridge Computer Laboratory, asked for advice on how to encourage more female applicants to computing, which led the panel to discuss what actually stands in the way of justice and diversity in the workplace. One point which emerged was that the shift from Personnel to HR may have created problems, since the personal contact of a Personnel Manager has been replaced by an approach to humans as ‘resources’ to be managed, with the task of getting to know the staff and their abilities often having passed to line managers.
Other questions included the role of evolutionary history as opposed to inheritance. In the case of the Rio Olympics, asked Trevor Phillips, since seven out of eight men in the Men’s 100m final will be black, should this be viewed as a genetic advantage, in the same way that women do not routinely compete against men on the grounds of physical differences? The point was also made, however, that culture can often have a much greater influence than heritage, even allowing for differences which do already exist, as in the case of the ‘running culture’ in Kenya which is promoted as a route out of poverty.
A particularly interesting question concerned the war novel in America and its frequent inclusion of a group of soldiers from diverse backgrounds being brought together in wartime. The panel pointed out some of the problems with this concept as it relates to diversity. The artificial creation of a situation in which everyone is equally disadvantaged does not necessarily iron out problems of discrimination; in fact, the culture within the US marines, for example, actively promotes the removal of outside identity and its replacement with a new group identity, which runs the risk of squeezing out certain kinds of desirable diversity and also can block people who don’t initially fit the mould from gaining access to the group at all. Tom Shakespeare picked up on the point about teams under pressure supressing individual tendencies, and discussed a team of students he worked with recently who are from a variety of different cultural backgrounds but were able to work together very successfully to gain a collectively higher grade.
A question about how to increase diversity within a predominantly white, middle-class institution led to some interesting comments from the panel about the underlying reasons for seeking to increase diversity and the importance of conveying the right message to the intended audience. Trevor Phillips also made the point that not every organisation has to have perfect representation (or ‘painting by numbers’), but that the goal is for every organisation to be open-minded to attracting the right people.
The panel was asked about the potential impact of using internet algorithms to target online adverts towards specific groups of people, and whether this could lead to a whole new spectrum of discrimination. This was generally agreed to be problematic. Huge amounts of information are collected over the internet; Trevor Phillips discussed the importance of transparency and openness in the use of big data, and the potential of technology to enable greater understanding of what people want. He asked whether, if it turned out that gay men have better taste due to their cultural influences, should we then look for the next top designers exclusively among that group, and would this be seen as acceptable?
The final question concerned the perception of diversity as a ‘dry’ subject and whether cynicism in the UK press is helping or hindering the cause. Tom Shakespeare shared his opinions on the lack of diversity within British journalism and mentioned that press coverage of disabled people tends to be dominated by phrases such as ‘scrounger’ and ‘benefit cheat’; he concluded that “the media is an obstacle to diversity”. Trevor Phillips commented on the partisan nature of the press, with stories being reported differently depending on which paper they appear in. He also emphasised the danger of social media witch hunts, such as in the case of Professor Tim Hunt, and suggested that ‘mob journalism’ could be a very dangerous issue for progress and innovation in the future.
Lord Chris Smith then thanked the speakers and Chair, confirmed that gay men are indeed better at interior design, and invited the guests to cross the road to Pembroke College for drinks in the Old Library, followed by dinner in the Hall.