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When will MeToo Britain cancel the last dinosaurs?

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John Allan is to step down as Tesco chairman after allegations of inappropriate behaviour (Photograph by Jason Alden/Bloomberg)

The old world is dying, and the new world struggles to be born. Go by the headlines, and the British business world may seem to be an unreconstructed playground for male sex pests who are stuck in a time warp. Look at the data, though, and a different picture emerges. Surveys suggest Britain is making steady, if unspectacular, progress on gender equality and the country compares relatively well with international peers. How to reconcile this apparent contradiction?

To recap: the nation’s biggest business lobby, the Confederation of British Industry, is fighting for survival after a series of sexual-misconduct allegations against senior figures spurred a wave of defections by major companies. The CBI replaced its director-general in April and promised a root-and-branch review. The pressure has not let up. On Friday, Tesco said John Allan will step down as its chairman after The Guardian newspaper reported four instances of inappropriate behaviour when he was president of the CBI. Allan had denied three of the allegations and apologised for the fourth.

“We are not alone in facing issues around workplace misconduct,” Rain Newton-Smith, who returned to lead the CBI last month, told Bloomberg Television last Thursday. That’s a safe bet. Ikea and McDonald’s signed legally binding agreements this year with Britain’s equalities watchdog, undertaking to improve their policies and procedures on preventing sexual harassment in response to concerns over how they had handled employee complaints. Last month, Aviva’s chairman warned shareholders against a repeat of misogynistic comments targeted at chief executive Amanda Blanc at the insurer’s 2022 annual meeting, where one investor told her she was “not the man for the job”. Meanwhile, a government-backed Bill that would impose a proactive duty on companies to prevent sexual harassment is in danger of being derailed because of delaying tactics by Conservative opponents in Parliament, to the dismay of rights campaigners and trade unions.

All this adds to the impression of a watershed year for the British approach to tackling sexual misconduct in the workplace. Yet some of the gender-equality research to appear as the CBI scandal unfolded has shown striking progress. In February, the FTSE Women Leaders Review announced that the government-backed programme had met its target of having women account for 40 per cent of board positions in the 350 largest London-listed companies three years ahead of schedule. Achieving the goal meant Britain had “cemented itself as a world leader for women’s representation”, the Government release proclaimed.

Then there is the Gender Equality Global Report from Equileap, which ranks listed companies in 16 developed markets by 19 criteria including women in executive positions, gender pay gap, flexible work options and freedom from violence, abuse and sexual harassment. In March, the annual study put Britain in fifth, ahead of Australia, the US and Germany. London-based drinks maker Diageo was rated the second-best company in the survey out of 3,787 examined.

A broadly similar story comes from the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report, released in July, which ranks Britain 22nd out of 146 countries. That’s ahead of the United States, Canada and the Netherlands, and up one place from the 2021 survey.

Data is the plural of anecdote, as the saying goes. Not always, though: in this case, they run counter to each other. The question is, which is giving the more reliable picture of the present state of British business culture? The macro view from surveys that offer, on balance, encouraging signs of progress? Or the news reports of inappropriate, sometimes criminal, behaviour that suggest there are pockets at least of the corporate world where the male-dominated and alcohol-soaked norms of bygone decades have barely changed?

An accurate take is a matter of economic importance. A wealth of research shows companies that value diversity and inclusiveness perform better. Discriminatory work environments that discourage or block participation are a waste of human talent and potential. That is something that Britain — a country with a tight labour market, a long-term productivity problem and an economy forecast to be the worst-performing in the G7 this year — can ill afford.

The answer is that both stories are probably right. The progress is real; it’s just incomplete. Cultures change slowly and unevenly, and the outmoded lingers even as the modern starts to take hold. The asteroid hit some time ago, but there are still dinosaurs roaming the Earth.

Dig deeper into the gender-equality statistics, meanwhile, and there can be less than meets the eye. Take the FTSE 350 programme. An increase in the percentage of women on boards may mean little if they do not hold positions of power. “There simply aren’t enough senior women on executive committees and in leadership positions,” says Ann Francke, chief executive at the Chartered Management Institute.

The same goes for the gender pay gap. This is closing, but at a glacial pace and there are wide disparities between professions. The median pay gap narrowed 0.2 of a percentage point to 14.9 per cent last year after rising slightly during the pandemic, according to government data. Based on the rate of progress over the past five years, it would take more than two decades for it to disappear completely.

Britain’s performance in global surveys deserves recognition. Just keep it in perspective.

Matthew Brooker is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering business and infrastructure out of London. A former editor and bureau chief for Bloomberg News and deputy business editor for the South China Morning Post, he is a CFA charterholder

Matthew Brooker is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering business and infrastructure out of London. A former editor and bureau chief for Bloomberg News and deputy business editor for the South China Morning Post, he is a CFA charterholder

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Published May 25, 2023 at 7:57 am (Updated May 24, 2023 at 7:51 pm)

When will MeToo Britain cancel the last dinosaurs?

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