A shocking lack of diversity is holding humanity back, says Huw Morris, examining recent research
Sam Smethers could barely contain her frustration with the findings. The Fawcett Society's chief executive came to one conclusion when, in January, the inequality charity released its latest Sex and Power Index, which showed men continuing to dominate top jobs across UK politics, law, civil service, trade unions, charities and professional bodies – and an alarming lack of women of colour in senior roles.
“We are generations away from achieving anything close to equality,“ she says. “We are wasting women's talent and skills.“
This is particularly pertinent when environmental crises and global poverty disproportionately affect women, people of colour and indigenous people. Meanwhile most environmental summits, conferences and the recent World Economic Forum at Davos are still overwhelmingly attended by white men.
The past year has seen a flurry of publications about diversity – or the lack of it. Two of them, by journalists Caroline Criado-Perez and Matthew Syed, offer a battery of statistics and research findings on the problems caused by exclusion.
In Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men, Criado-Perez – best known for her feminist campaigns, which have put Jane Austen on the £10 note and a statue of suffragist Millicent Fawcett in Parliament Square – exposes a gender data gap that thinks of humanity as almost exclusively male. Transport infrastructure, urban planning, government policy, medical treatment, workplaces and technology exclude women by ignoring their needs. This invisibility has consequences – some of them disastrous. Cars, for example, are designed around the male body, meaning that women are 47% more likely than men to be seriously injured in a car crash, and 17% more likely to die.
Another major problem is urban planning – particularly the way cities are laid out to serve the needs of a male breadwinner with a wife at home in the suburbs. This typical man drives to work and sees home as a place of leisure. Women, meanwhile, are more likely to 'trip-chain' – taking children to the GP or school, going shopping or visiting a relative in the same journey. They are more likely to use public transport, but most systems are not designed for their safety, or for unpaid care work. They are also more likely to walk, but transport infrastructure policy omits pedestrian trips and 73% of World Bank transport funding is for roads.
Faith in future technological innovation may be misplaced, Criado-Perez argues, as it depends on who does the inventing. Male entrepreneurs are more likely to get funding because 93% of venture capitalists are men. They are also more likely to develop technology that helps men.
Perez points to the three-stone stove, on which women in 80% of the developed world cook – often in poorly ventilated rooms. These stoves belch out the equivalent of multiple packs of cigarettes in toxic fumes. Alternatives have been developed, but their take-up has been slow, partly because many designers have not consulted the women for whom they are designing.
Too often, Criado-Perez says, the excuse is that women's travel patterns, lives and even bodies are 'too complicated'. Researchers, entrepreneurs and venture capitalists would rather not think about the female half of humanity and save money than tackle that complexity, she argues. This leads to huge data gaps in technology. Datasets for algorithms are hopelessly male-biased. Voice recognition software often does not recognise female voices. Translation software turns female doctors into male doctors. Image-labelling software sees men as women if they are standing next to an oven.
The male domination of the technology industry creates another gap. Middle class white men from the US simply cannot be aware of the needs of all of humanity, so the technology they develop will inevitably be biased towards middle class white men from the US. Perez points to Apple's 'comprehensive' health app, which can track copper intake but not a woman's period. Step tracker apps forget that women often do not have pockets big enough to carry their phones at all times.
“Researchers, entrepreneurs and venture capitalists would rather not think about the female half of humanity“
The journalist Matthew Syed takes a different, if complementary, tack in Rebel Ideas: The Power of Diverse Thinking. He argues that diversity can be approached in different ways – in terms of demographic, race, gender, sexuality, social class, religion and so on – but what fascinates him is the concept of cognitive diversity. His thesis, backed up like Criado-Perez's by a mass of statistics and research, is that bringing people with different insights, experiences, perspectives and thinking styles together leads to an uplift in collective intelligence.
He points to the CIA's disastrous failure to foresee the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Its analysts, though highly talented, were predominantly white, male, Protestant liberal arts graduates from the west coast of the US. Any one of these individuals would be an asset in a diverse team – but as a collective, they were catastrophically incapable of seeing what Osama Bin Laden was planning.
The problem is 'homophily', or people's tendency to hire other people who look and think like themselves. When people mirror back their own perspectives, beliefs and to some extent prejudices, it makes them feel comfortable and more intelligent. When they hang around other human beings, they instinctively create groups that are not cognitively diverse. This is an 'invisible gravitational force' that is undermining collective intelligence.
This point is crucial when it comes to tackling complex tasks such as obesity, climate change, global poverty or the development of a new product or strategy. Syed argues that the top four most accurate economic forecasters do not necessarily make the best team if they use the same models, went to the same universities or think about the economy in the same way. They will make the same predictions and the same errors. If you bring economists with diverse models together, accuracy increases by up to 15%, in a phenomenon known as 'the wisdom of crowds'.
Syed argues that this phenomenon is even stronger when it comes to problem solving, creative ideas or innovating. He cites a McKinsey analysis of German and UK companies which found that firms with executive teams in the top quartile for gender and ethnic diversity had a return on equity 66% higher than those in the bottom. In the US, it was 100% higher.
“The problem is 'homophily', or people's tendency to hire other people who look and think like themselves“
No time to waste
What's the way forward? Srabani Sen, chief executive and founder of Full Colour, a consultancy specialising in diversity and inclusion among leaders, says part of the challenge is that many responses in any organisation, whether big corporates, charities or the public sector, involve greater diversity among only junior members of staff.
“There is an assumption if you bring in lots of people at a junior level, given enough time, they will rise up the ranks and you will have more diversity in the leadership,“ she says. “From my experience of being a chief executive and serving on numerous boards, the higher up the ladder you get, the less diversity you see. The trickle-up approach has failed.
“Even if the entry-level approach would work, when you are in those jobs you are not the decision-makers, whatever the field. Do we have to wait 30 years for people at entry level to rise through the ranks before diversity can be brought into decisions that will affect the lives of communities across the globe for at least two generations? With issues such as sustainability and climate change, we are risking damaging their quality of life and even people dying while we wait for this to happen.“
Sen argues that some organisations use arguments about diversity of thought, particularly on their boards, as an excuse to avoid hard questions about achieving real diversity among leaders. “Diversity of background will give you more diversity of thought than having a doctor, an accountant or a lawyer on the board, who may come from different professional backgrounds but are university-educated middle class people with very similar lifestyles and experiences,“ she adds. “Those organisations that get it right approach the issue with humility and courage, genuinely work towards having diversity of thought in their DNA and marry this to the organisation's goals. They prove more successful in making better decisions, in their problem-solving and make more money.
“Whatever the sector, too often diversity and inclusivity are on a to-do list that is marginal to the mainstream purpose of the organisation.“
Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men by Caroline Criado-Perez is published by Chatto and Windus.
Rebel Ideas: The Power of Diverse Thinking by Matthew Syed is published by John Murray.
The Fawcett Society's 2020 Sex and Power Index – key statistics
The law: The Supreme Court has two women justices out of 12. Since its formation in 2009, no Supreme Court judges have been a person of colour.
Business: Women make up just over one in 20 chief executives of FTSE 100 companies. None are women of colour.
Education: Women make up 39% of secondary head teachers. This has risen by just 6% since 2005. Women make up 30% of university vice-chancellors. Only 1% of university vice-chancellors are women are colour.
Media: Women make up only 21% of national newspaper editors, with just four women in the top jobs.
Sport: Women make up 21% of national sport governing body chief executives, down from 26% in 2018.
House of Commons: 34% of MPs are women – up by 2% in the 2019 election. Women of colour make up 17% of female MPs, in line with the population as a whole.
House of Lords: 27% of peers are women. Only 2% of all peers are women of colour.
Devolved parliament/assemblies: There are no women of colour in the Scottish Parliament, National Assembly for Wales or the Northern Ireland Assembly.
Cabinet: 30% of the cabinet and 47% of the shadow cabinet are women.
Civil service: Around a third of permanent secretaries are women, but there are no women of colour in these roles.
Huw Morris is a freelance journalist.