Home TypeNews Phil Soar: Has the diversity war already been won?

Phil Soar: Has the diversity war already been won?

by Philip Soar

With the nation in the mood for celebrating female empowerment, EN guest editor Phil Soar tackles the diversity problem and asks ‘has the war already been won, but we don’t know it?’

Julie Driscoll is a very impressive (and convincing) speaker and argued the case for more diversity in our industry at the AEO Awards.

She made the rather telling point that she was only the second woman to be elected chair of the AEO in 101 years. I might add, Jane Risby-Rose is the only woman to have won either the EN or AEO annual “most respected” award.

This has been a theme in the last few years – with the Women in Exhibitions group becoming more noticeable and beginning to win awards. Added to that Lisa Hannan, Alison Jackson, Carina Bauer, Alexia Maycock, Julie herself, Emma Barrett, Kerry Prince, Anna Golden, Kelly Haslehurst are becoming more and more dominant voices in the industry.

Speaking as a tired (very) old (very) white man, the most intriguing fact is why this has taken so long to come about. Organisers employ rather more women than men (particularly in marketing and operations), the venues would seem to be 50/50 and many of the service companies (particularly registration and the like) are probably the same.

The industry seemed entirely male in the 1990s

In my early days on the AEO board in the 1990s the composition was entirely male. Of the 14 members of the Blenheim board at the same time, only one, the company secretary, was female.

Most exhibition staff nowadays are graduates. This year 57% of UK domiciled university entrants are female – females became the undergraduate majority in 2010. When I take graduation ceremonies at my own university, I am struck by the overwhelming ratio of female/male graduates in certain subjects – law and veterinary science stand out.

(A short aside – back in 1980s and 1990s there was still concern that not enough girls were going to university. So the government introduced rules which banned discrimination and in effect favoured more female entrants. The last time I looked this remained in place – it is still legal to discriminate in favour of females, but not in favour of males).

Girls will be 50% more likely to go to university by 2027

The female/male discrepancy has been increasing at around 1% per annum. By 2027 we can assume that three graduates out of five will be female. This means that a girl in secondary school today is 50% more likely to go to university than her twin brother.

This does have some unintended consequences – among the most obvious in medicine. As recently as 1979 there were only 13 university medical schools in England and Wales. In the next two decades another eight were added and now there are 27. Each is admitting more and more undergraduates. But not a single week goes by without a Radio 4 piece on the shortage of GPs and other medic al specialists.

The reasons are various (more graduates choose to work overseas for instance). But a striking one is the changing sex ratio. Investment in new doctors is a very long range decision for governments. Thirty or so years ago the assumption was that a trained doctor would then be working for around 35-40 years. So the numbers admitted took account of this and rising population etc. At the time, some 85 – 90% of entrants were male.

But that percentage began to change dramatically. By 2002 there were more female applicants for medicine than male. By 2018 57% of the entry was female, and this is expected to rise to 60% by 2025. (The 2020 US equivalent was 54%).

Out of 301,000 registered doctors in the UK at the moment (covering all ages and occupations) 141,000 are female and will become the majority in a  few years. In 2020 57% of active GPs were female.

Female catch-up and unintended consequences

Good, fine. What is the catch? Very simple – it is clear that the average female doctor will not work for 35 person-years, and probably far less. The reasons have nothing to do with ability or commitment to the job, but are the normal biological/social reasons. Females have babies. As their profession allows it (unlike many professions) female doctors are more likely to work part time when they have children, and are also disproportionately likely to care for older relatives. The net effect is simple maths – as a higher and higher percentage of medical graduates are female, so the average expected person-years of work for a doctor declines. The higher the female intake, the more graduates are required to fill the number of GP and other positions. Very much an unexpected consequence. Please note, we are talking about “averages” here – we are not talking about any particular individual’s propensities.

The university entrance rate for ethnic groups is also not what you might expect

As far as the proportion of UK-domiciled undergraduate entrants who are defined by the 10-year census as white: well this has fallen 8.3 percentage points, from 78.7% in 2010-11 to 70.4%  in 2020-21. Meanwhile, the proportion of students from every minority ethnic group has risen. This statistic is even more remarkable than the male/female ratio. According to the Office for National Statistics, 85.6% of the UK population in 2021 were classified as white and 14.4% from other ethnic groups. This means, obviously, that “non-white ethnic” British teenagers appear to win more than double the number of university places than their population statistics would suggest (29.6% versus 14.4%).

(I have to caveat this for those who focus on questionable statistics. While the “ethnic” population in total may be 14.4%, there can be age disparities – the “ethnic” percentage of persons say 70+ may be lower than 14.4% while the percentage of 18 year olds may be higher than 14.4%. But the broad trend lines are clear.

I think the same argument applies vis a vis our West London based industry. Going round our companies it seems clear to me that we already have a far more diverse workforce than “average” statistics would suggest.

The Tory leadership race has generated massive comment in the US

Reading the US press and listening to CNN and the like, their heavy focus on the diversity of the Tory leadership race has been striking. And while it is noted in the UK, it has not generated any particular surprise or debate.

Out of the final eight candidates, four would once have been described as being from ethnic minorities (Sunak, Zahawi, Braverman and Badenoch) and four were female. Only two were white males – Hunt and Tugendhat. Only one of the last five was a white male. All US commentators I read argued that this would be impossible in the US primaries – although the 2020 census recorded the traditional “white” (i.e. excluding Hispanic) population as being just 59% of the total.

The truth is that we in the UK are soon going to have to stop even mentioning these labels – they are hopefully drifting fast into irrelevance.

I recall listening to Thierry Henry about why he continued to live in London. He said that it was the only place where no one paid any attention to the colour of his skin – an attraction to many of the world’s better footballers.

But going back to Julie’s point, will greater diversity and more women in senior positions improve our businesses? Are gender quotas good for our companies? “Of course,” is the immediate answer.

But is there any evidence to prove it?

Are gender quotas good for companies? 

California now has a law which requires publicly quoted firms to have at least 40% women on their boards. Norway had done the same in 2008. Most major European countries now have similar legislation. Nearly all exhibition companies are private, of course, so such rules cannot apply legally to them.

In California, the objections were mainly of the “golden skirt” variety – that there were relatively few suitably experienced women and that small number would serve on a lot of boards. Research in Italy and Norway suggests that the “quota” women have more professional qualifications and degrees than the rest of the board.

But, so far at least, there have been no studies which conclusively prove that adding more women to the higher echelons of companies has made a clear and consistent difference. This is hardly a surprise of course, because a wide array of other factors such as recessions, exchange rate movements, raw material costs and so much more will affect any company far more than changes to the composition of its board.

There is anecdotal evidence to suggest that the more women on the board, the returns are better and there is less conflict. But this is more likely to be predictable correlation. Companies which are already well run and thoughtful are more likely to have appointed boards from the whole universe of possible candidates.

In case you are thinking money and mouth – CloserStill has (excluding its private equity appointees) four female and five male board members.

I almost think that the pleas for diversity and equality have arrived a little too late, like radioing the Titanic to warn of icebergs at 3am. The composition of the graduate population, the increasing prevalence of senior females in our businesses, the male female ratio in our companies, two consecutive female chairs of the AEO all rather suggest that the revolution is already well underway.

Do you agree with Phil Soar? Is the exhibitions industry on the right track towards tackling diversity? Let us know your views. Email the editor ewallin@mashmedia.net 

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