Conformity is part of our DNA, a useful attribute to ensure the continuation of the species by minimising conflict and maximising cooperation. But it is also the main impediment to creating a more diverse, inclusive workforce, as evidenced by the glacial pace of progress on gender equality. Karina Robinson writes that there are times when we need not to conform. She says that the courage to step outside the consensus and make a stand, however lonely, is crucial.
At 7:30am on a January winter day, as I bent down to pick up my Norfolk Terrier’s poo in the park, I regretted the absence of anyone to watch the careful operation. How ludicrous to want to demonstrate that I was a responsible member of society! Yet from poos to parties, conformity to the norm is the rock upon which society is built. It is part of our DNA, a useful attribute to ensure the continuation of the human race by minimising conflict and maximising cooperation.
Conformity is also the main impediment to creating a more diverse, inclusive workforce.
Subconscious biases are part of this. Cambridge historian Mary Beard argues that our mental, cultural template for a powerful person remains resolutely male, admitting that even for a feminist professor like her, ‘the cultural stereotype is so strong that, at the level of close-your-eyes fantasies, it is still hard for me to imagine me, or someone like me, in my role.”
It is therefore not surprising that, globally, the share of female members of parliaments has risen from a minimal 15 per cent in 2006 to only 23 per cent in 2022, according to the latest World Economic Forum global gender gap report. Rarely do they get promoted. The average share of women in ministerial positions has risen from only 10 per cent to just 16 per cent. At this rate of progress, it will take 155 years to close the political gender gap.
Despite a host of initiatives, the corporate world is also moving at a glacial pace. Only one in four C-suite leaders in the US is female, notes the latest McKinsey report on Women in the Workplace. Meanwhile, the number of female CEOs in the FTSE-350 largest companies in the UK is unchanged from 2016 to 2021– only 18, notes Statista.
Apart from issues of fairness and a more diverse perspective, fishing for talent in a bigger pool is the only way to fill both the existing large number of job vacancies and future ones. International Longevity Centre research shows a potential shortfall of 2.6m workers by 2030.
The ease of conformity contrasts with the hard work of creating change. Denise Wilson, CEO of the FTSE Women Leaders Review, says: “I am often asked what is the silver bullet, the one thing that an organisation should do to drive progress. Regrettably, there is no such magic. Improving diversity means a multi-year, multi- layered approach. It requires systematic change and taking on a system that has worked very well for some but excludes others.”
There are times when the courage to step outside the consensus and make a stand, however lonely, is crucial.
January 2022 was the 80th anniversary of the Wannsee Conference, where 15 members of the Nazi high command and the SS agreed the ‘Final Solution’ for the Jews. The film Conspiracy depicts the meeting, which over a few hours of bureaucratic wrangling – what philosopher Hannah Arendt calls the ‘banality of evil’ – made concentration camps like Auschwitz part of the official German state apparatus. The Kenneth Branaugh film depicts two officials who attempted to halt, or at least slow, the process. They were, ultimately, intimidated into laying misgivings to rest.
Also in January 2022, Prime Minister Boris Johnson was under fire for a series of parties held at 10 Downing Street at a time when the country was in lockdown, when many families were torn apart from their loved ones, especially elderly ones. Before the scandal broke out, the belief that ‘we are all in this together’ had been a comfort. Conforming to self-sacrificing rules for the health of society took its toll on the physical and mental health of the nation.
Being told what to do by rule-makers who turned out to be rule-breakers undermined the basis of our social contract. That is why the Downing Street parties were the beginning of the end for the prime minister, while other misdemeanours have been feather-like in their effect on the government’s standing, such as the awarding of COVID-related contracts to unqualified recipients, or the Dominic Cummings’s imbroglios.
It may seem a far stretch to tumble together dog poo, diversity and inclusion, the Holocaust, and a government under fire – in fact, downright disrespectful. In no way is this meant to offend. But as we head into a year that is likely to be one of great upheaval (given the war in Ukraine, rising rates, and China’s reopening), let us reflect on how to reconcile the need for acceptance and the need to stand apart from the norm in our search for a more diverse and inclusive society.