Gender diversity is not about undermining workforce quality

‘Too many excuses’ for lack of gender balance in top positions

Initiatives to promote gender diversity within senior leadership positions are commonly criticised for not attracting the best talent. This reveals a widely held naïveté, as these policies are designed to attract better, more diverse talent, resulting in higher productivity.

The importance of having a gender-diverse workplace was discussed in detail at the launch of the 10th edition of OMFIF’s Gender Balance Index. The results of the GBI 2023, which tracks the presence of men and women in senior positions in central banks, commercial banks, pension funds and sovereign funds, found that it will take 140 years to achieve gender parity at the current rate of progress.

‘We do not believe that diversity and gender parity will lead to undermining the quality of the workforce,’ said Katja Pehrman, senior adviser at United Nations Women, speaking at the virtual launch of the report. ‘On the contrary, we believe it will attract more of the best talent.’ Pehrman added that women hold more advanced degrees than men so there should be no concern on whether women are as, or more, qualified than men.

These views were shared by other panellists, with Aniela Unguresan, founder of EDGE Certified Foundation, the leading standard for diversity and inclusion, saying it was ‘inappropriate and inaccurate’ to assert that efforts to promote gender balance and diversity are contrary to the principles of meritocracy.

‘The embedded assumption is that women and diverse talent are of a lower quality than the talent that the organisation has,’ said Unguresan. ‘How can we think that having organisations that have complete imbalances in one direction or another throughout their pipeline are really recruiting the best talent for their organisations? True meritocracies are diverse, equitable and inclusive. There is no other way.’

Sophia Abu, head of the financial inclusion gender desk at the Central Bank of Nigeria, said there are too many excuses being used to justify a lack of gender balance in senior positions. ‘One of the excuses that we’ve heard, for instance, is if you’re trying to recruit people for a certain position, there are more men that would show up and so, unintentionally, they’re hiring a lot more men just because the women aren’t showing up with the same sort of talents,’ she said.

‘So I think these are really just excuses,’ continued Abu. ‘We need to focus on the fact that there are opportunities. There are women who have merit, who have the talents and who have the competencies. We just really need to look at ensuring that the system they are coming into does not exclude them or does not provide barriers for them to grow in those systems. I think this is what we need to be focusing on, as opposed to the conversation around meritocracy.’

It is lazy to state that the system is truly meritocratic, when the very same system is evidently not always open for women to move up the ranks. More work needs to be done to ensure access of opportunity is fair for both men and women.

Across the sample of the 336 institutions tracked by OMFIF’s GBI 2023, 14% are led by women. That is up slightly from 13.7% in 2022 and 13.3% in 2021. But it shows very slow progress.

The world of finance needs to walk the walk when it comes to gender diversity and it is not just these financial institutions, but every sort of institution, both public and private. For example, public sector borrowers – sovereigns, supranationals and agencies – must also create policies to promote gender diversity. In a snap poll carried out by the OMFIF Sovereign Debt Institute LinkedIn page, two-thirds of respondents said the gender balance at the top of SSA funding teams ‘needs improvement’ while just over 20% said the gender balance was ‘not good enough’.

Burhan Khadbai is Head of Content of the Sovereign Debt Institute at OMFIF.

This discussion took place at OMFIF’s Gender Balance Index 2023 virtual launch held on 21 April. View the panel and key findings presentation here.

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