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For Diversity Look Beyond What You See

Posted on June 8, 2014 at 3:10 AM

In the last three years - since Lord Davies of Abersoch launched his review on the underrepresenation of women in the UK's plc boardrooms - I have been to more awards ceremonies in the UK than I would have thought possible. The vast majority of them have focused on showcasing women in different sectors.

As a result I have met people I would never have come across otherwise as a journalist. Some of them have then ended up profiled in the pages of the Financial Times: not always because they won, but because a combination of factors meant they had a golden moment in the media spotlight. But behind many of the candidates who worked their way into shortlists, there are compelling stories of talent for business - and for more diverse boardrooms.

Businesses which sponsor and support these awards year after year are smart - and proactive. They provide a filtering system that may surpass headhunters by existing closer to 'real time' - and avoiding the endless 'networking' requirement insidious to our boardrooms. But there are also dangers to awards that focus on individual identity as a function of ethnic origin.

The glittering annual Asian Women of Achievement awards are a case in point. They serve to boost confidence and provide a comforting sense of inclusion to many of the women who participate in them. But they can also leave others with considerable achievements who agree to participate wondering how it can be that the place where they were born is still the salient point to the context of their careers, some thirty to forty years later.

Some years ago I was doing a 'meet and greet' at the door at a high-profile event with someone who is commonly termed a 'City Grandee' by the media. In visual terms, a refreshingly diverse group of men and women came through the door - ie of all shades of colour and ethnicity. This was particularly true of the younger arrivals.

Every single time a young woman who was not white walked in, the gentleman with me asked 'And where are you from ?' as a way to ingratiate himself and start a conversation.

It was beyond embarassing - both in the fact that he was doing it, and the response. I had to take him aside to have a gentle 'word' - but he just didnt 'get it.' 

Context can be an easy way to start a conversation. If someone says they are from Yorkshire - and you're me - you can start waffling on about Betty's Tea Rooms and wax lyrical about Swaledale. Both of those reactions of course are those of a tourist, and probably add little to the conversation - but they are a start. If they say they are from Barbados, you can just be jealous. And so on. But context should never be more than just a starting point.

I was born in Jodhpur, in the state of Rajasthan in India. This explains the fact that my happiest temperature for existence is about 80 degrees Fahrenheit, and I like the food. But it tells you nothing else about me. 

In the United States (where I grew up) they pride themselves on being 'a nation of immigrants' and nowhere is that sentiment more clearly expressed than in New York.

But Britain is seemingly very confused about what it thinks about immigration. We have people in this country who are third generation immigrants and often don't 'go back' at all. Yet we persist in seeing them as 'different.'

Our boardrooms appear to be either a reflection of that confusion, or - even worse - a clear indication of the reason for it in the first place.

Note the new page on this website - TalkToMe/Interviews 

Categories: Inclusion, Appointments, Representation