DISCUSSION A business case for equal opportunity?

by Luke Robinson _______18th March 2014
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by Turid Elisabeth Solvang, managing director, Norwegian Institute of Directors

At a Tomorrow’s Company seminar I attended recently, the buzz was all about how young women needed to make a business case of their gender in order to gain influence and win management positions. I was enraged. How could I possibly ask my daughter to make a business case of herself, and not ask the same of my sons?

My daughter is 24. At 17, she moved halfway across the globe to complete her baccalaureate in Asia. Another culture. A foreign language. Alone. She was given an opportunity. The ambition, the capabilities, the work and the discipline required, was all hers. She rose to the challenge. She did well. She has continued to do well. She’s that kind of person.

She has two brothers, both a few years younger. I have great faith that my sons will find their own paths in life. Yet, I feel proud when I see them following in their sister’s footsteps. Though even at her young age of 24, I can see that those size 4 footprints could become a pretty hefty act to follow. Because she is continuing to prove her potential. So, why on earth should my daughter need to make her gender an element of her business case, if my sons do not? Was a man ever asked to prove his business case – as a man?

Your personal business case should be about proving your contribution to the company’s value creation – as an employee, as a manager – not as gender. Similarly, recruiting should be about competence – skills, knowledge, insight, experience, personal abilities – regardless of your sex. Equal opportunity is the responsibility of the person, company or society that discriminates, not of the person discriminated against.

But there are other poignant reasons why companies would do well to ensure that candidates are evaluated on the basis of merit. Several studies indicate that diversity in general, and gender diversity specifically, is simply good for business. Research from Norwegian boardrooms, where legislation introduced eight years ago ensures a minimum 40/60% gender balance, now indicates that female directors are better educated, more inclined to ask questions, and prepare better for board meetings. They also tend to be more risk averse, a quality that, while often scorned in the present, is repeatedly proven valuable in the glaring wisdom of hindsight.

Equal opportunity also makes sense on the grander scale of things: In Europe today, more than half of university graduates are women. As a citizen I salute the progress that has been made in making higher education accessible to both genders across Europe. As a taxpayer I have invested in all those years of expensive education, and expect my investment to be well managed and to provide returns. Surely, a prerequisite for business performance is making the best use of available resources?

My message to companies and recruiters is this: Don’t expect my daughter to jump hoops you’d never throw up in front of my sons. Judge her on merit, not gender.

My message to the young women who have flocked to universities and who are now knocking on the doors of business and industry, with swanky degrees and bursting with knowledge: Education is a right, but it is also privilege. And as a privilege, it carries responsibilities. Yours is to make full use of that education. Put yourself out there: Trust your competence; build your confidence; take on responsibility; claim your chair.

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