Diversity with June Sarpong: how the workplace can work better for women
In the first of a series of three short films making the case for a more inclusive workforce, June Sarpong, author of Diversify, gathers insights from high level decision-makers on how the workplace can work better for women. June analyses the anecdotes and the data with the FT's Pilita Clark and Alan Smith
Produced and directed by Veronica Kan-Dapaah. Directed, edited and filmed by Tom Hannen
I started off in radio. From there I moved in to television. I went to MTV. What was really interesting for me was when I started at MTV not only was I one of the only working class people there, I was, to begin with, the only person of colour...only woman of colour there.
I'd from a TV background, so I use fashion analogies. But I look at gender as almost wearing a coat that's just a bit too tight. And it's just slightly uncomfortable. You just know that there's a coat that's a little bit more comfortable, that would fit easier in terms of how you are treated. Racism, I would say, is coming into a room in a jacket that is seen as the completely wrong colour. There's nothing wrong with the jacket. You like it. You think it's great. But everybody else reacts in such a hostile way to that jacket that you're wearing.
Is that literally how you feel?
Yes. And it feels very differently. That's why, for me, it's really important to have an intersectual conversation. Because the way I'm treated as a woman is very different to the way I'm treated because I'm black. They feel very different. And you know which form of discrimination you're experiencing because of the way it feels.
And I think it's really important to make sure that others also understand that.
You would know more about this than me in that you've been studying gender and reporting on gender for such a long time. And I think what's interesting about the #MeToo movement - and I'd love to hear your opinion on it, too - is, of course, it's a moment of reckoning in that women are making sure that their voices are heard. They are expressing painful emotions that have been suppressed for so long. And I think that, you know, like with any shift - if you look at the civil rights movement - it was similar in the sense that when we started really calling out this level of injustice, racial injustice, it was a real reckoning.
It seems to me we've had this huge cultural shift.
Yes, which is great.
Which has been terrific.
But when it comes to actual real economic, financial, and political change...
What is that? So I spent some time with Alan Smith, your data visualisation editor. And I was shocked by the data that he showed me.
Hi, June. Nice to see you.
Nice to see you. So Alan, you are our man in the know when it comes to data.
So on this axis here, we're going to show what is the gap. So in the middle means there's no pay gap at all between men and women. In this direction is when you're paying men more. So at this level, you're paying men 50 per cent more than women.
That would be women being paid 50 per cent more. But what the data has shown us is that actually over three-quarters of companies that did report paid men more than women.
So these are all the companies that are reporting a pay gap in favour of men.
Oh, my goodness.
And you can see that that's a sizeable number.
So it's a big proportion. And what really completes this graphic, obviously, is do you want to see the companies that are paying women more, June?
There they are. So there is a gap.
There is a huge difference.
And what we're really looking at in this chart is just the lack of symmetry.
Yeah. And even the ones where we're getting to the 50 per cent mark, that's still worrying.
That's a big gap.
That's a huge gap.
That's a big gap.
We spoke with... I spoke with Ann Pickering from Telefónica, 02. They have just managed, I think as of last year, their board is 50/50, which is wonderful. But that was something that she said was not easy. She literally had to be very clear with her executive search firms to say, do not send me a list that does not have 50 per cent women, 50 per cent men. And, wait for this. Some of them recused themselves.
So I found myself as the other...
I was the only woman in the room. And much as my male colleagues were a delight, I, metaphorically, I lost my voice. So that's when I realised how important diversity was. The penny dropped for me at that point. So when the opportunity arose to recruit additional people to the exec team, I would only work with a search firm that would be happy recruiting a 50/50 gender balance shortlist.
Right, so you stipulated that.
I stipulated that. You would be surprised, June, at the number of search firms who were uncomfortable with that request. So we didn't tend to work with them going forward. So for me, it's all about creating a level playing field. And I don't believe in quotas.
So 50/50 gender balance shortlist, and then we chose the best person, who happened to be female. So it really does bring diversity of thinking. Yeah, we're all very different. So much better quality of debate in the board room, much broader range of views. Fantastic to have four role models for the women in our business. And I make sure that they get out there and they talk to our female colleagues. That's really, really important.
We filmed the roundtable with six key business leaders. And they all had different views on how you actually create change, and how you make sure that it's long lasting. And it was interesting, because Helena Morrissey doesn't believe in quotas even though the 30% Club kind of is a quota system, isn't it? That's kind of the whole point of it. But she doesn't believe in quotas, whereas Shriti Vadera and Karen Blackett believe that you need to have some sort of clear metric. You need to know what it is that you're working towards.
I think the easier task, dare I say it, is women on boards.
I think the more difficult one is senior women at the executive level...
Executive level, yeah.
...rather than at the non-executive level, which by the way, is the source of the pay gap.
The representation of that. And I think that I worry a little bit that the exclusive issue of a focus on board level has actually also taken women out of executive positions into going portfolio possibly a little earlier. And I think we really need to focus on women and being at the executive...
At the executive level.
Senior executive level.
And also on the executive committees, as well, which is key. Yeah.
The executive committees. Not just the CEO or the finance writer who might be on the board...
...but in the levels below. Because that's the talent pipeline. That's the future.
In our office, something that we we're always talking about is too much male energy.
And so we have a sort of male energy measure in our office. And that's because we've made sure that the teams are equalised and that thing. But we try to make sure that all the teams that are working never become one gender. That's something that we've been watching, that actually when teams start to aggregate into the same gender, even when there's diversity in it, it starts to produce a certain kind of culture. And it actually affects the entire mood of the entire office.
Something that's been really important to us is how the micro team actually are organised and starts to dissolve that. Because then that kind of bonding agendas start to become much more soft.
And they don't just become male orientated or male interest only. They become soft and they become shared. And then that starts to have an effect. Because then when you start to see that kind of different team leaders winning there's a kind of idea that it's not about that one thing. You know? And it's something... we can tell with my leadership team when we've hit the male energy...
...metre. We're like, what just happened? OK. Can somebody do the numbers? Oh, my god. We have more men in the office than women.
Do you think there's a fine line between role model and exceptionalism?
It's a tough one.
Because, you know, I always sort of say...
That's a great point.
...that we'll know that we've kind of really got to success when there are as many mediocre...
...women in charge of companies as there are mediocre men.
-- in charge of companies. Because it's so easy, isn't it?
I just wrote something about this.
Because it's interesting, around International Women's Day in particular, I often do start to feel slightly exhausted. Because one is constantly being bombarded with all of these stories about these magnificent women, who are indeed magnificent.
But it reinforces the idea that to get ahead, you have to be so much nicer, better, brilliant, more generous, more ethical, more everything.
And it's exhausting.
Who wants to keep thinking about this?
You just want to get on with it.
Yeah. And you want to be mediocre.
If it's okay for the man to be mediocre, why can't we be mediocre, too, now and again?
That is exactly what I said. You know, we must fight for the right to be as useless as anybody else.
And this is the way that true equality lasts.
Parental leave, let's look at parental leave. How we look at parental leave, in the first place. In the roundtable this came up a lot. And a lot of the mothers on the panel talked about their problems that they had had in their career.
And I think one of the most significant things we've done in 02 is run a career returners' programme.
How does that work?
So we brought women back into the workplace who've been out typically between two and 10 years, primarily having family, bringing them back on a 12-week course. And it's just all about giving them the opportunity to develop their self-confidence. You know, I can remember, it was many years ago, June, when I had my children. But you're off for months. And you really forget about the world of work. So giving women the opportunity to come back as part of a cohort, so they all join at the same time. Giving them a mentor, giving them a coach, and allowing them to come back into the workforce around about 12 weeks to develop their self-confidence.
When we started Net-a-Porter, the first, I would say, 10 employees were actually dominant with male. Because we had IT, accounting, CFO. That's kind of natural at this stage. Quickly, we started to get more and more females in the company, because it's a female company. The audience is female. My reason was, OK, having two people to employ a woman or male... most of the employees were young. So you deal with finding talent. And when you find talent, you want to keep it. That talent, female, has to go on maternity leave. And it's a huge challenge for a young company when you find the talent, to actually find a replacement of that talent.
And after 10 years, we were like, 3,500 employees. 2,500 were women. Out of these 2,500 women, you always have 50, 60 pregnant women. And actually, that kind of maternity hub we had at the company was actually a great way for us to find new talents. When you grow a company, number one, the woman being pregnant, most of the time that's 95 per cent Of the time what's coming back to the company. So effectively, you don't lose your talent. But more importantly, we had this hub of replacements who were there to support for three month, four months. We test them, and actually they were, for us, an amazing skill we had. They could be like, one... to replace someone in the accounting department. Actually, she would go into the magazine department.
So effectively, that created amazing assets.
It became a training programme, almost.
Totally. And actually, that' season for me, it really changed my vision on actually hiring young women. It is actually an amazing asset.
Yes. It is.
I always talk about me loudly. So I'm a single mum to an 8-year old boy.
Who is fabulous.
Thank you. I was promoted to be CEO of an operating company 10 months after having him.
Wow. What was that like?
Look. I'm not going to lie. It was something I'd always wanted. But, my god, I was thinking, how am I going to do this? But I set my stall out. So I had conversations with my boss. I had conversations with clients about I am going to be more productive than I ever have been. I'm just going to work in a different way. And I think, again, it's about that conversation of normalising this.
And how have you designed how you work? Because I think this is really important, particularly for women in the world of work, women who are mothers.
Until we get to the place where men are treated the same in terms of paternity, this is something we really have to look at for women. How did you design that?
I talk about work-life blend rather than work-life balance. Because work is life and life is work. And you've got to know how to blend the two. And I am fortunate that I can have some help with childcare. I'm out of the office by 6 o'clock.
On the dot.
I'm out of the office and I'm gone. And there will be a blackout window between 6 o'clock and 8 o'clock where I'm all focused on my son. And then after 8 o'clock I will answer emails. But I think the point about leaving loudly was, look, I am putting my spikes on and Lycra to compete in my son's sports race.
And, I literally--
Incredibly. And I will say what I'm doing. Because I think when you try and not talk about it and you try and hide it, it becomes something like a guilty secret. And it shouldn't be. It's part of your life.
Speaking of progression, one thing that we are really looking at a lot is promotion and searching out for the right candidates, and just thinking more broadly about that across industries. This whole idea of building up a pipeline is something that I know people spend a lot of time thinking about. And to me, it just seems like a no brainer. I mean, of course you have to have a strong
You can really start to paint this picture that there is something happening to decelerate the careers of women.
So I'm going to, again, look at the proportion of women. Firstly, what we asked these organisations to report on is by their kind of seniority. So if we look at the junior staff in these same organisations that we looked at just a minute ago...
...actually, junior levels are far more likely to be occupied by women.
But then as you progress through the company's organisational structures, at middle management there's already a shift.
It's male dominated.
...straight away. So there's some... because often when you look at people that report and work in this space, often they say it's the middle area is where the problem happens, in that women don't progress from the middle to the sort of C-suite. But actually, your data suggest it's actually happening here before we even get to the middle level.
Yeah. There is clearly something happening that's changing the gender structure between junior and middle levels. And, of course, you can guess. If I'd ask you to point on the screen where do you think the senior level customer is going to be...
...you know, there's no surprise.
All the way over there in the corner.
All the way over there.
And so I think what we're sort of seeing here is, again, just more reinforcement that there are some... you know, the data's great showing us the symptoms, if you like, of what's going on.
But I think this is really important. Because up until now, sort of the general thinking has been that women get stuck at the middle level. And so for companies wanting to address this problem, they're looking at the wrong place for the problem. This is suggesting we need to start much earlier...
...in the company pipeline.
And so setting out things like the management of expectation for career pathways right from those junior levels, incredibly important. Now how companies react to this has been extremely interesting to watch. Because I think with the first wave of gender pay gap reporting, there was a suspicion that lot of companies were waiting until the very last moment to report their pay gap data, so that it would get lost in an avalanche of similarly bad pay gaps.
So many of them. We're not so bad. Look at them.
But there were a few companies that took an exception to that approach. One of them was easyJet, which did report a very big gender pay gap.
But it reported it early on...
...and made a very big announcement, which was...
Announcement that they were going to address it.
Well, they effectively said, a lot of our pilots who are well-paid are male. And we're going to introduce a new recruitment programme...
...specifically for recruiting female pilots. And so they took what could have been interpreted as a very negative press story about having a wide pay gap...
And came up with a solution straight away.
And turned up into something that I think generated far more positivity for them. We've taken a big look at specifically, finance. And I think finance is one where you look at how does that compare to the pay gap, overall. So we've still got the same axis here on this chart.
Still looking at the pay gap.
This time, we're going to look at the percentage of companies...
That are paying men more.
..in the sector. Because they're all obviously different size industries, and so on. Now this line shows us the chart that we were really just looking at, which is all companies. okay? So that's that asymmetrical shape that we were just looking at. In finance, there's far fewer companies with no pay gap.
With no pay gap.
The proportion of companies with no pay gap is much smaller.
And if you look at the proportion of companies that are paying men more, that's what that looks like within finance.
And what about paying women more?
Well, you're going to have to get your magnifying glass out, because there's only a very few. And none of these... none of these companies here are actually what you would call big finance companies. It really is important to know with this data what you can and can't do. So, for example, we don't know how many employees there are in any of these companies, other than the fact...
That there's at least 250.
...that there's at least 250. And they can report, companies, how many employees they have in an overall band. But it's not comprehensive enough. Some of our colleagues here have linked this data to other data on the size of companies. And what that reveals is actually about nine in 10 women will work for a company that pays men more. That's the figure.
Is that just for finance, so that's across the board?
That's across the board, overall.
Nine in 10?
Nine in 10. So it's really interesting, this. Because...
When you put it like that, it's even worse than it seems.
Because when we sort of around the figure off, we're sort of saying 14 per cent, whatever the current figure is at the moment. But actually when you put it like that, it just sounds terrible. Nine in 10.
So without question, the majority of women in this country will work for a business that pays men more.
Absolutely. Without doubt. And this is the first time that we've really been able to say that based on an extensive data set that gives us a snapshot of that.
That's a reality.
We need more women in finance.
Or more diversity in finance.
Diversity in finance is the issue. Diversity in finance.
I think that finance is a big issue.
I think that tech and fintech...
And I feel really bad about this. Because it's almost like, these are the start-ups. Fintech is the kind of blank sheet. You don't have to have a history of unconscious bias, or anything else. And then you have technology companies that are worse.
Worse, much worse.
But there's an interesting point here, a kind of paradox, which I don't really understand. You could not find a business, around this table or more broadly, that wouldn't agree with the proposition, what's your greatest asset in your business?
Your people, right? So how much reporting of your people characteristics goes on? Not very much. I mean, it shouldn't have taken the government to come in with legislation to require that to be disclosed.
You know, it's quite hard to price what you can't manage, or what you can't measure.
And what you can't measure. Yeah.
I think there's a lot further we can go. You're starting with gender, which has been a great start, through ethnicity, and more broadly...
And disability, and across the board.
And then you've got a vehicle for investors to be able to shine a spotlight on these things.
And indeed, regulators. And absolutely, that needs to be thought about and reported and recorded, not just to your regulator, but to your investor.
Which is why I was saying at the start , the important thing is linking that measurement at the team levels into performance at the team levels. Because at the end, they're measuring their performance. Because that's the thing they're interested in. They've got to find the linkage at that level.
I think investors were very slow off the mark around flexing their muscle, as it were. And partly because they felt self-conscious that actually, they didn't look particularly diverse, themselves. And now I think we've overcome that. And certainly, Legal & General has been right out there in front. And we've now got, within the 30% Club, an investor group of almost 30 institutional houses and over £10tn of money. That's a lot of money. We do get together and when companies are really dragging their feet, or just even ignoring us completely.
I think it's been really interesting, just to look for example here in the UK, at the pay gap legislation. For example, where for the first time... is really quite groundbreaking. And I think a lot of people in Britain don't realise how people around the rest of the world are quite amazed by this. The companies...
And we're the only country doing it properly, actually.
And so companies, for the first time, have to actually report their pay gap. So that was really exciting last year. But then this year, it's so interesting. In the last few weeks we've had... the BBC did this really interesting analysis. I'm sure you saw it, actually.
Four out of 10 companies actually had a wider pay gap.
Not really where we were expecting to go.
And then it seems as though the sanctions that people thought were going to be imposed on companies that...
So companies have been able to report figures that make no mathematical sense. And they haven't really been abiding by the guidelines, and nothing's happened. So that, to me, is a kind of a microcosm in a way of where we seem to be in a lot of areas.
Yes. And I think that's actually part of what needs to happen next with the women's movement, particularly in the workplace, which is I think we have to get really clear about what it is that we want and what it is that we expect. And then demand it in a really strategic way, and a systematic way.
Because when it is happening in isolation, when we're doing this in silos, you don't really have that sort of systemic change that you need for this to be something that's long lasting. And that's got to be the next phase of it. Otherwise, all it is we're complaining, we're shouting, but we're not actually forcing change. We're speaking truth to power, but we're not changing the power dynamic.
Right, right, right. June, you spent the last couple of months working on this diversity series. What's been the big takeaway?
Number one, just how beneficial it is for the bottom line, and that actually companies need to see this as a way of future proofing their businesses. And then the second part is, it's just the right thing to do. Yes, it's a smart thing to do. But it's also the right thing to do. And I think what I've been most energised by is the way that, in the last couple of years, I've seen a sort of a willingness, at least an openness where people are actually open to at least having the conversation. And I think that, in itself, is a shift.