On Michelle Obama, diversity and the quotas thing


“Here’s the secret. I've been at probably every powerful table that you can think of. I’ve served on corporate boards, I’ve been at G summits, I’ve sat in at the UN. They’re not that smart” Michelle Obama, 2018.


Those words, spoken during Michelle Obama’s lightning-speed trip to London this week, and the clarity of their message, made me think about how often the best speeches are given by people once they have stepped down from or are about to leave their positions of power.  Perhaps it’s a combination of their drive and a unique perspective that comes from the smell of freedom and the sudden lack of pressure to say or do the right thing. Margaret Thatcher’s final speech in Parliament delivered after a sleepless night leading up to her resignation, was a tour de force: “I’m enjoying this” she cried in the middle of it, standing in front of all those men in her own party who had ended her career for her during the preceding night-of-the-long-knives.  And in a rare display of unity, the whole House was enjoying it with her.


Michelle Obama’s words are inspirational for women (and men) who feel, because of their colour, gender or social background that they don’t fit in and will never make it to the top. But they also highlight, by their boldness and confidence, the contrastingly lack-lustre state of the current narrative on how to achieve better gender and racial diversity in the workplace.  Looking at it from an external perspective (free as I am from pressure to say the right thing), diversity at work seems to have become somewhat overrun with corporate events and power point presentations bearing messages such as “better culture not quotas.” A business case for women is made rather than putting forward radical new ideas on how businesses can become more representative of the people they serve. Meanwhile progress seems to have stagnated. Perhaps this is in part because nearly all of the men and women at these events have made it within the existing work environment – they are, in the end, at least to some extent, part of the culture that needs to change. Those who aspire to the top but might not make it and those who made it, but then decided to leave are rarely heard.  Could it be that group-think has paralysed the diversity debate?


Despite what many management consultants would have us believe, the hard evidence that diverse companies produce better results is at best equivocal.  But we seem to have bought into a rhetoric of justifying women by what they add (which leads eventually to the usual nurturing, relational, consultative stereotyping of women’s leadership) rather than accepting that women are often merely just as good as and not very different from the men who currently monopolise positions of leadership. The only thing that marks them as different is their absence from high places, and that in itself is reason enough for encouraging more women to stay in the work force and rise to the top.


The thorniest of radical ideas for achieving diversity is that of quotas, for which – in the UK, at least - it is hard to find any champions.  Quotas seem to strike at the heart of the holy grail that is “meritocracy.” And women are as vociferous in their opposition to them as men. Speaking to the Guardian newspaper in 2015, founder of the 30% Club, Helena Morrissey stated: ”The idea of having 30% women, 20% ethnic minority, presumably some per cent – I don’t know what the number would be – of LGBT. I mean, it ends up … then you’ll have to have a campaign for white men.”  Well, no actually. You don’t have to be a mathematician to realise that some of the percentages will overlap, leaving probably around 50% of the board to cling to the tradition of pale and male, if so desired.  Such arguments are flimsy and yet are taking hold. Many men now believe the odds are stacked against them in recruitment processes across all walks of life (it’s a difficult time to be a man, according to Donald Trump), even though all the evidence demonstrates this not to be the case. For example, CMI data this year showed that in the UK men are still 40% more likely to be promoted to managerial positions than women. 


Drives to recruit more women, such as quotas or targets or women-only short lists, are seen as a way of letting less talented women in through the back door at the expense of “the best person for the job”. Once again, these arguments lack substance. Recruitment processes are so full of faults and biases that it is virtually impossible ever to demonstrate that “the best” candidate has been hired. What is known is that many of those faults and biases are to the detriment of women and minorities. Despite high representation for decades now of women in universities and at graduate entry level in large organisations, head hunters still struggle to put enough women on their lists for senior jobs. “I’d like to recruit a woman, but I just can’t find one” is a frequent refrain of CEOs, but has to be the equivalent of “the dog ate my homework” in the rankings of poor excuses for failure to deliver diversity.  All the evidence suggests that just as the Michelle Obamas of this world have to be more talented, more driven, more hard working than their white counterparts, women more generally also have to go the extra mile in order to succeed.  A combined effect of biases, lack of opportunities and structural disincentives (such as no real flexible working) persist in enabling a certain type of usually white, usually male person to continue their overrepresentation in top positions in just about every sector and just about every society.  Those are the facts.


But, there are deeper issues at play. Michelle Obama has herself spoken of how she often wondered if she had made it to Princeton because of some unspoken affirmative action programme; she was sure that her white contemporaries believed so and it undermined her confidence; although it also drove her to work harder. On top of this psychological burden on their beneficiaries, there is not much evidence to suggest that affirmative action programmes work in achieving broader aims. For example, whilst quotas or targets for putting women on boards have been met in Nordic countries, the UK and France, for example, the resulting changes in board constitution have not trickled down to management levels and beyond in organisations, nor has there yet been any sign of a cultural revolution in our corporate world.  Women are not returning in droves and the number of women CEOs of the UK’s 100 largest companies (the FTSE 100) has fallen to 6.   This is not by any measure a success.  But maybe it is not the quotas that are wrong but how we implement them and our attitudes to them. Quotas or targets can only ever be part of the story of change that is needed, but they may be an important element of kick-starting real progress.  If we hold on to the facts about the obstacles women and minorities face and remind ourselves in the face of resistance that quotas are about levelling the playing field rather than picking on men, the possibility of implementing them or other more radical measures begins to make more sense.


Now seems the right time to seize the moment and use Michelle Obama’s courageous and confident stance as a role model.  We need to be braver in our aspirations for how we would like the future of work to look and for the changes we will consider in order to make organisations more attractive to more diverse groups. We need to ensure that the conversation about diversity is not dominated by powerful corporate figures alone, who may even unconsciously be too invested in retaining the status quo. Talented men and women who have chosen other paths have a valuable contribution to make, and their outsiders’ perspectives, free from the pressures of corporate constraints, might generate more radically creative thinking. And, finally, we need to prioritise promoting talented women and people from ethnic minorities and LGBT groups in order to accelerate change at every level.  They are there and can be found.  If it sounds like a tall order, we can use the words of Michelle Obama’s husband as our mantra: “Yes we can.”