Why diversity targets won’t help the Big Four

The spotlight appears to be on the big four accountancy firms as they struggle to address the lack of diversity in their partnerships.  The domination of white men from elite universities continues in these firms with Ernst and Young, for example, reporting that just 17% of its 549 partners are women.  Clearly the people occupying senior positions in these companies ought to more closely reflect the diversity of its client organisations and society as a whole – it makes good business sense quite apart from being seen as a progressive and fair employer.  Yet the pressure to address current imbalances at the top suggests that some firms are placing more priority on the achievement  of  diversity targets than on the quality of their partners or the inherent causes of male-dominated workplaces.

Ernst and Young has announced that, within 3 years, at least a tenth of its new partners will be black or from other ethnic minorities.  It has also pledged to make at least 30 per cent of its new partner appointments women in the same time frame.  Such ambitions might be impressive but are surely misguided.  Where are these senior women and ethnic minority partners going to come from?   We know that most women entering management roles in the city tend to leave in their thirties or fail to achieve promotion to senior levels.   Maternity breaks and child care responsibilities and are part of the explanation for this but there is also evidence that corporate culture discourages women from aspiring to senior management roles.  Being a partner means long hours and the high stress involved makes it difficult for women to cope with the demands of work and family.  On top of this, the male-dominated, performance-driven culture is off-putting to many highly capable young women.

Any company that is serious about achieving diversity at the top needs a long term talent management strategy.  The aim should be to ensure that the firm’s organisational culture and policies reflect a genuine desire to engage, develop, support and promote talent – wherever it comes from.  The desire to achieve diversity at senior levels in business should be welcomed, but the problem cannot be resolved overnight.  A slavish and superficial focus on targets alone suggests that the top firms are paying lip service to what is a complex and more deep-seated issue.

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