Women's History Month: Beyond Our Backgrounds

Authored by

Kelly Young

Chief Executive Officer

It’s Women’s History Month and an opportune time for me to highlight some key issues of gender diversity and the workplace – though of course these conversations can and should be happening year-round if we can expect to see any real progress. This month, I’ve been exploring the subject of diversity through the prism of socio-economic and educational disadvantage. We know that there are persistent, systemic factors in shaping career prospects. But has this begun to shift? Has growing awareness of these disparities and opportunity gaps started to have a meaningful impact on outcomes, or is it still just talk? Spoiler alert: things are showing signs improvement, but there is still a long way to go.

I have written before about how girls’ academic progress can become negatively affected by social stereotypes which they start to absorb as early as age 6 [University of Illinois (UIC) published in Science magazine in January 2017]. It is also intuitively and statistically clear that people of a lower socio-economic status have greater barriers to their chances at prosperity than wealthier middle classes, owing to the systemic lack of supports in areas such as education, community, healthcare, and other shortfalls. So women on the societal and financial margins appear doubly disadvantaged, lying as they do at the intersection of these two demographics.

The data showing the effects of socio-economic disadvantage are unequivocal, whereas the effects of being a female appear to be rather more nuanced. In OECD countries, 60% of children from privileged backgrounds have regular home learning before primary school, compared with 30% from lower socio-economic status [OECD: Understanding Social Mobility]. Disadvantage is therefore partially baked in from early childhood. It is unsurprising that this is reflected in later years: 80% of 15-year-olds from high-status households expect to complete higher education, compared to 50% from lower status [OECD Ibid]. Looking from a specifically gender-focused perspective, there are persistent gaps in educational achievement. Girls tend to perform worse in maths and numeracy than boys. This may be because of historically accepted societal attitudes nudging them towards more “feminine” subjects [UIC ibid]. It does not therefore need to imply a wholesale underperformance by girls, but it does mean that young women tend to be under-represented in STEM subjects at university - these subjects being arguably some of the most powerful in influencing career prospects.

This matters, and not just because of the lack of fairness. It also represents potential self-harm on the part of our economy and the companies within it. By stunting (however inadvertently) the progress of less advantaged cohorts – poorer people, women, and the poorer women who lie at the intersection of the two - we effectively rob ourselves of their potential. In the US, 80% of total wealth is owned by 10% of householders [OECD ibid]. This must give some implicit indication of the volume of less privileged people whose talents could be better exploited to the good of all. I would be the first to admit that Diversity Equity and Inclusion (DEI) initiatives can be abused for doctrinaire motives and to malign effect. However, if properly applied, DEI is about improving overall performance. A 2020 study by McKinsey of 1000 large companies in 15 countries showed that the top quartile in terms of diversity within executive teams are 25% more likely to have above average profitability than the 4th quartile [McKinsey & Co: Diversity Wins: How Inclusion Matters].

What is really encouraging is that the challenge has been well and truly identified and grasped. There is a whole lot more to do, but there are number of laudable initiatives to turn the tide and open pathways to success for the lower socio-economic classes. I mentioned before about girls’ underperformance in STEM subjects. The resulting facts on the ground are on the face of it depressing. Women make up 46.8% of the US workforce. But they are badly under-represented in the field of computing, representing 15.7% of computer hardware engineers, and 26.7% of the workforce in broadly defined computer and mathematical occupations [US Bureau of Labor]. Step forward Black Girls Code, an organisation which since 2011 has been seeking to open the door to technological education for girls aged 6-17 – from all backgrounds but especially black and Latino and from low-income households. Volunteer IT professionals teach classes in web design, game design, mobile and app design, and robotics. The aim is to place one million girls in tech by 2040

Another area of promise hits closer to home for me: I want to highlight the 93% Club, a brilliant organisation founded in the UK in 2016. The 93% number refers to the percentage of people in the UK educated at state schools. The 7% balance went to private schools. It’s a relatively tiny number, yet this minority is vastly over-represented in all the top universities and – later on – in the top jobs. This may of course partly be because many of these schools provide a brilliant education. But membership of this club can provide an invisible advantage to last a lifetime. They speak the same language, share the same frame of reference, and in essence represent a self-perpetuating Old Boys’ (and occasionally Girls’!) network. I am a proud Brit, but I’m not especially proud of that.

The 93% Club was set up by a university student – a relatively under-privileged young woman who was the first person in her family ever to attend university. It started as a mutually supportive network of students outside the gilded 7%. It has built up into a membership of 10,000, offering advice and support. They have struck a chord in the business world and are sponsored by some of the biggest names in the legal, consultancy, finance and other sectors. The 93% Club is particularly close to my heart as I too was the first member of my family to go to university. When I started my first job in an exclusive blue-blooded merchant bank, I was all too conscious of my “otherness” – as were my colleagues. I well understand the doubly hard work (and occasional strokes of luck) that it requires to compete with the leg-up offered by the private school experience and network. What I would have given to have had access to the support of an organisation like the 93% Club.

There are clear signs that things are moving in the right direction. Go back to 1970, and only 8% of women over 25 in the US had a bachelor’s degree, compared to 14% of men (admittedly not a great total itself). By 2021, the figure was 37% for men with women nosing ahead at 39% [Pew Research Center]. Perhaps unsurprisingly considering these academic strides, women have gained ground in the US’s highest-paying occupations, but they still lag behind men. They now make up 35% of workers in these occupations, up from 13% in 1980 [Pew Research Center]. This is something to be celebrated, but there is no room for complacency.

Another barrier to women’s progress can lie in the mindset of companies during recruitment and subsequent development. “Unconscious bias” is an overworked term which I think can be open to abuse, but I also believe that it is a real phenomenon. There is an observed tendency towards “performance bias.” This describes the way in which women candidates can face hurdles which their male competitors do not. Women are often hired or promoted on the basis of past accomplishments (not in itself unreasonable), while men have a better chance of being hired on the basis of potential [Joan C. Williams and Rachel Dempsey: What Works for Women at Work (NYU Press), cited in McKinsey & Co’s Women in the Workplace (2023)]. It becomes that much harder for women, especially from under-served and under-resourced communities where we know the professional networks and built-in glidepaths are rare, to get a break.

This gets back in many ways to the raison d’être of the 93% Club. We naturally have a pre-disposition to want to work with people in our own image. It is much more comfortable that way. We are quite possibly entirely unaware of this tendency within ourselves, but its effect can be harmful for those who don’t fit the traditional mould. We have probably all heard that when we walk into a room for a business meeting, the audience will to a large extent have made up its mind about us, positively or negatively, by the time we have sat down. People pick up a range of verbal and non-verbal signals – manner of speech, clothes, ethnicity, gender, general demeanour etc. – and subconsciously form an opinion about the person concerned. [This “First Impression Bias” is covered by a number of academic papers e.g., Ambady & Rosenthal, 1993; Gosling, Ko, Mannarell, & Morris, 2002)].

Once this first impression has been reached, there is an observed tendency for us to interpret subsequent behaviours in a way that reinforces our initial impression. This is known as the Halo Effect [First identified by Edward Thorndyke in 1920: The Constant Error in Psychological Ratings]. From an instant instinctive appraisal, we tend to decide someone’s overall reliability and competence in a way that cannot be rationally justified – but which is seldom put to a rational test. In a recruitment context, will this always work to the disadvantage of a woman, or of someone with a less privileged background (especially a woman)? Not every time, I am sure, but far too often.

Identifying this phenomenon is one thing. How to combat it is another, because the nature of groupthink is of course that we don’t know when we are doing it. The answer must lie in establishing structures whereby it is less likely to happen and addressing these gaps systemically. Experiment with new recruiting and hiring tactics. Confer with people of different viewpoints from recruitment to onboarding processes. Measure and monitor candidate data. Try to train ourselves in “cognitive de-biasing”: deliberately seeking to identify our biases and confront them proactively and rationally. These are all initiatives we have employed at Acadian and which have brough more awareness to our practices and more strategic focus to our talent pipeline.

This is emphatically not a matter of positive discrimination, if that means going out of our way to pick a substandard candidate over a better one who happens to be a middle-class man. In a competitive industry, why would I want a substandard team? I want the best. This is a matter of realising that the best may not be the most obvious. In seeking to level the playing field for people from a wider spectrum of socio-economic and educational backgrounds, and the women that group encompasses, we can ultimately only end up with a stronger team and enhanced performance.