The Tenth Annual William Pitt Seminar

by Katie McIvor

20151016--308 TheatreThe Tenth Annual William Pitt Seminar was held on Friday 16th October 2015 in Peterhouse Theatre, followed by dinner in the Hall at Pembroke College. The theme of the event was ‘Being different: what difference does diversity make?’ Vicky Bowman (1984) chaired the seminar, with presentations on the theme of diversity by Patrick Voss, Dr Tom Shakespeare (1984), Trevor Phillips and Professor Rae Langton.

Lord Chris Smith, the new Master of Pembroke College, welcomed the speakers and shared some personal reflections on the importance of diversity in society, drawing on his experiences as the UK’s first openly gay MP. He then handed over to Vicky Bowman, who was one of the first women to matriculate at Pembroke in 1984, to introduce the speakers and explain their different perspectives on the theme of diversity.

Patrick Voss is a co-founder of Radius Business, a company which promotes diversity in business by focusing on its commercial value. His presentation included a range of interesting statistics about female representation on the boards of FTSE 100 and FTSE 250 companies, which rose from 12.5% in 2010-11 to 23.5% in 2015, although the increase in the number of female Chief Executives and Executive Directors was much more minimal. Gender-diverse companies are 15% more likely to outperform competitors, while ethnically diverse companies are 35% more likely to do so. Patrick also 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.

The next speaker was Dr Tom Shakespeare, 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 attitude towards catering for disabilities. 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 twice as likely to be unemployed as non-disabled people, and when in work tend to be concentrated in lower-occupation roles. People with mental health problems and learning difficulties are the most likely to be at a disadvantage. Tom argued that a just society should support people who can’t work or are limited in some way.


From left to right: Patrick Voss, Trevor Phillips, Vicky Bowman and Dr Tom Shakespeare

Trevor Phillips, the President of the Partnership Council of the John Lewis Partnership and former Chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, spoke about problem of tackling more subtle forms of discrimination in the workplace, since “everybody knows what not to say.” He also emphasised that improving the situation for one discriminated-against group does not necessarily improve it for others; we need to be mindful that improving, for instance, the ratio of women in management positions doesn’t have a negative knock-on effect on the numbers of black people in management positions. An overemphasis on political correctness in the media can also create problems, with people becoming afraid to speak about ethnic discrimination for fear of saying the wrong thing and being labelled a racist. He also addressed the difficult question of whether classifying on the grounds of race is automatically a bad thing even if it produces beneficial results, such as better healthcare provision.

The final speaker was Rae Langton, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Cambridge. She discussed the gender bias within the discipline of philosophy, which has fewer women in academic positions than almost any other subject, including maths and science. A number of different reasons could be behind this – the “incredibly combative” culture of philosophical debates; the problem of female students being treated differently by their mentors; implicit bias; and stereotype threat. Some of these problems can be combatted by greater anonymity in selection processes and by raising awareness about implicit bias within society. 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, which led to an hour of interesting discussion on topics such as what actually gets in the way of justice in the workplace, whether genetic and evolutionary history plays a role in creating discrimination or whether culture is a greater factor, and whether internet algorithms, which target online adverts based on people’s search history, are likely to become a discrimination issue.

After the seminar, drinks were served in Pembroke College’s Old Library, followed by dinner in the Hall.