Can quotas tackle workplace diversity issue?

  • Diversity question: pictured, from left, are Cyril Whitter, Kirsten Beasley, Alison Hill, Myra Virgil and moderator Katherine Cupidore of Deloitte on a panel at the Bermuda Insurance Market Conference (Photograph supplied)

    Diversity question: pictured, from left, are Cyril Whitter, Kirsten Beasley, Alison Hill, Myra Virgil and moderator Katherine Cupidore of Deloitte on a panel at the Bermuda Insurance Market Conference (Photograph supplied)

Differing views on diversity quotas for companies were a highlight of a panel at the Bermuda Insurance Market Conference.

All on the panel at the Bermuda Insurance Institute-organised event agreed that there was a diversity and inclusion issue at senior management and board level of Bermuda companies, with white males still the dominant group.

Cyril Whitter, chief executive officer of Independent Management Ltd, favoured tackling the sources of the problem, from education to hiring practices, rather than using a quota approach.

He said that the Association of Bermuda International Companies had surveyed their membership and discovered that 37 per cent of C-suite employees were Bermudians.

“When we started to peel back the onion, we found that only 10 per cent of that 37 per cent were black and only a small percentage were female,” Mr Whitter said.

He said the issue was systemic in Bermuda and factors included the island’s segregated history, the differing networks of children brought through the private and public school systems and bad hiring practices in companies.

There was plenty of anecdotal evidence of tendency towards “cultural affinity” in hiring — meaning that decision-makers felt more comfortable hiring those who looked like them or came from the same place, he added.

“Then there may be some outright prejudice,” Mr Whitter said. “There’s an assumption that a Bermudian from the Back of Town can’t be CEO of an international company. But I’m a black Bermudian from the Back of Town.”

Mr Whitter spelt out why he opposed quotas to tackle the problem.

“If the result is a lack of diversity in senior management, then how do you correct the problem?” he said.

“Do you go to the symptom, which is a lack of diversity in senior management as a result of decades of not doing the right thing?

“My argument is always that I am very uncomfortable with companies adopting practices that are designed to get a better mix.”

He mentioned his son, whose friends were from all races and different cultures, he added.

“I don’t want to see one of his white friends shut out of a job, even though he was the best person for the job, because they needed a black person or a female up there,” Mr Whitter said.

“My argument has always been that to correct the problem, you go to the source. If the source is bad hiring practices, or bad promotion practices, you fix that.

“If those practices are fair, then I know my children will be able to work their way through, based on merit. Ultimately, that way the problem gets fixed.”

Kirsten Beasley, head of healthcare broking, North America, at Willis Towers Watson, argued that while “quotas” was a controversial term, diversity metrics should be maintained and targets set, if companies were serious about tackling the issue.

“I view it as an accountability structure,” Ms Beasley said. “We work in the re/insurance industry and we have to be accountable for our top and bottom lines.

“If we can all agree that diversity and inclusion is core to our business mission, not just for social justice, but because it’s actually a competitive advantage, then why are not D&I metrics as fundamental to how we measure our business as our top line is?

“So rather than looking at it as a quota, look at it as an accountability structure that goes beyond headcounts and looking at numbers in aggregates.”

Companies should start looking in different places for talent if they wanted a more diverse workforce, Ms Beasley said.

“If you go to the same broker or producer over and over again, you get the same type of business. You’re not diversifying your business, so you have to cast your net wider.

“We get that when its comes to our production and our prospecting and we need to get that when it comes to our people.”

Myra Virgil, CEO of the Bermuda Community Foundation, said one of the challenges for business was to start to think of D&I as a business problem.

“You have very smart people in the room who tackle much more complex problems,” Ms Virgil said.

“Another problem is on the personal level — it’s about self-interest. The idea of diversity and inclusion and equality of opportunity in some ways gets very personal. If you start to win, then I start to lose. We have to get away from that.”

A third tension she recognised was people thinking of diversity initiatives as zero-sum games and the question of which area to tackle first, gender or race, for example.

“We want people not to see a hierarchy of diversity, but to let the data drive what your priorities are as an organisation,” Ms Virgil said.

“How do we want to show up in this jurisdiction? How do we need to show up to get the best business outcomes?

“If we treat it as a zero-sum game, then I think we’re all going to lose.”

Alison Hill, CEO of Argus Group, said she believed local businesses were doing better on diversity than international ones.

Argus’s staff, for example, was 88 per cent Bermudian, 69 per cent women, a 50 per cent female board and 50 per cent senior leadership, she said.

“But if you pull back the layers, we haven’t mirrored our community in terms of race,” Ms Hill conceded. “That’s something that we absolutely need to do.”

She added that diversity was essential. “We have an ageing population and a shrinking working population — we have no choice, there is no place for exclusion, we need all the talent,” Ms Hill said.

Hill said she had been in an environment in the run-up to the great financial crisis, where “everyone looked the same, and thought the same and it led to herd mentality and groupthink”.

However, Ms Hill said quotas could backfire.

“I don’t agree with quotas, because what you can end up with is a two-layer board or management team, where you have a cabal, the group who says, ‘we know what’s going on, we make the decisions’,” she said. “Everyone else is there because they have to tick a box.”

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Published Oct 15, 2018 at 8:00 am (Updated Oct 15, 2018 at 12:07 am)

Can quotas tackle workplace diversity issue?

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