02 December 2019

A Good time to be a Girl:

A Guide to Thriving at Work and Living Well

Dame Helena Morrissey
2018, William Collins, 272 pages,
ISBN 9780008241605

Reviewer: Ian Bright, ING

Diversity is a topic with special relevance to economics. Economics suffers not only from over representation by relatively wealthy men but also from the unpopularity of the subject at schools on the part of women and minority groups. It is for these reasons that the Society of Professional Economists supports the Discover Economics programme. For this reason alone, it is appropriate to review Dame Helena Morrissey’s recent book.

Dame Helena is the founder of the 30% club ( https://30percentclub.org/about/who-we-are ) - described by Wikipedia as “a campaign group of Chairs and CEOs taking action to increase gender diversity on boards and senior management teams.” She is also a successful business person, having held senior positions at UK financial institutions. Her views on the current state of diversity programmes should be valuable. And here the book is highly critical. Its main argument is that many approaches to diversity are not effective.

The book takes as a given that increasing diversity increases business performance. Studies are cited to support this but it is largely assumed the reader has already accepted this argument.

Defining diversity
Diversity programmes will fail if they simply lead to hiring more women and other under-represented groups. More radical changes are needed. Diversity is effective only if it both recognises and values that people work and think in different ways. Increasing diversity should challenge existing ways of working and avoid groupthink. This will not happen if existing procedures are mimicked by people hired under diversity programmes.

“Diversity is obviously about not being identical – it’s about being different, and inclusion is about welcoming those differences, not submerging them. Many diversity efforts are unsuccessful because they are based on pushing women – and other under-represented groups – into the same framework as men.”

Similarly, when implementing diversity approaches, ask yourself “Is your approach sophisticated? Have you made it clear that you are not aiming for a situation where your employees look different but actually think alike? As David Sacks and Peter Hind put it in The Diversity Myth, “real diversity requires diversity of ideas, not simply a bunch of like-minded activists who resemble the bar scene in Star Wars.”

The failure of existing approaches
Existing approaches to diversity are criticised. The “Lean In” ( https://leanin.org/book ) approach is described as “demoralising” because it encourages copying existing behaviours and does not value alternative approaches which may be integral to the character of under-represented groups. In the case of women, Dame Helena argues:

“Instead of teaching women to be less agreeable (compassion and politeness are surely valuable characteristics), I believe we should be aiming to create organisations where we don’t need to lobby to be appropriately rewarded.”

The effectiveness of diversity training programmes is questioned. Research is cited showing “there is no evidence that such training works – and good reason to believe it may actually increase animosity towards minority groups.” The reason for this is “that we cannot instruct people to alter their thought processes and their attitudes. Each of us needs to do that for ourselves.” Approaches to change cultures in organisations advocated by Iris Bohnet in her book “What Works: Gender Equality by Design” are seen as more effective.

“Professor Bohnet argues that the we should focus our energies on changing environments, not mindsets. In my experience, one can lead to another.”

The time is right
Further, it is argued that the current time is fortuitous to promote diversity because digitisation requires companies to change the way they work. This requires new ways of thinking. Increasing diversity can play a role.

Further still, Dame Helena advocates urgency. There is a need to move quickly and “to take advantage of today’s window of opportunity, to deliver on the early promise of more democratic, more equal power …We cannot achieve our quest by following an established path. … It’s time to encourage new ideas, including challenging all those conventional approaches to diversity that have disappointed us, a time to experiment, to see what actually works.”

What this book is not
The style is personal. It is a “call to arms”. Personal anecdotes abound. This approach can annoy. Very many pages can be skipped through at a rapid pace without fear of missing important ideas. But the passion of the argument cannot be ignored.

But passion alone is not sufficient. Arguing that existing structures need to be changed is fine. The reader is left to figure out how to challenge these structures and how to go about change.

Here the book pales against Iris Bohnet’s. Dame Helena praises Prof Bohnet’s work and has helped lead one of her classes.

In writing this, I fear being unfair. Dame Helena has done a great deal of practical work to promote diversity. The impression given is that this has not been enough. It is time for others to come forward and challenge existing structures and groupthink. Indeed, this may be the purpose of the book.

An approach that is mentioned but not followed through is increasing the role that data analytics is playing in business and how this could be used to make diversity programmes more effective. With good data, careful analysis and explicit statement of assumptions, vested interests and groupthink can be challenged. Similarly, the extensive literature on change management (sections of which are related to behavioural science) is largely ignored.

Another shortfall is the discussion of women and money – a topic that Dame Helena would be expected to give some detail on given. At the time the book was written, Dame Helena was a senior executive working on retail finance in a prominent UK financial group. Research is cited showing that women entrepreneurs have greater difficulty than men in getting finance. Once again, no concrete ideas are presented on how to change this. When it comes to personal finance, the lower levels of money women have invested in, for example, pension funds is noted. But no consideration appears to be taken of total household financial positions. Neither all women nor all men arrange their lives or finances in joint relationships around a household format. However, to ignore the implications of this in the way many people actually organise their finances is unfortunate.

A gripe I have with the layout of the book is the way footnotes and references are not signalled through the text. Footnotes are not numbered throughout the text. These are grouped together at the end of the whole book – not even at the end of each chapter. Several of my irritated notes made while reading such as “cite the evidence!” were only addressed when I got to the very end and found pages of additional explanation. This layout is awful.

On Brexit
For members of the Society of Professional Economists, it would be remiss to not include the brief discussion in the book of Brexit. Dame Helena is a supporter of BREXIT. Her support comes from a distrust of top-down approaches to decision making and a fear of groupthink. Dame Helena depicts the EU as an institution beset by both. Her support for BREXIT is explained as follows:

“I had taken the view - and said it publicly – that Britain would not just survive but be more likely to thrive in the long term if the majority voted to leave. You may be shocked to read that – and that’s part of the problem. I really wasn’t trying to be provocative. I was genuinely anxious that the financial sector, big business leaders and mainstream politicians and university lecturers might be making another groupthink error. Surely the referendum was an opportunity to think carefully about how the world was changing, about Britain’s place in a changing world, and the ingredients for the future (and more evenly distributed) success?”

This book can be read quickly. Its key message is clear. But it fails with practical advice. The reader is left on their own. That, however, may be consistent with the authors’ aversion to top-down systems. It’s up to the reader to figure out what to do in their individual situations.

On a personal note, this book was recommended to me when I was beginning a project aimed at increasing participation by women and younger employees on a group with which I am involved. My original ideas were challenged by a colleague as being ultimately ineffective. It was suggested I think more deeply and from a system-wide perspective. This book helped.