UK women could be set back without ‘laser focus’ on diversity after pandemic

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Alison Rose
Alison Rose, chief executive of NatWest Group, said it was “absolutely vital we keep the diversity and inclusion agenda really firmly at the forefront”. Photo: Reuters/Simon Dawson

Women in the UK are at risk of being left behind without a “laser focus” on diversity and inclusion, as Britain recovers from the coronavirus pandemic, the chief executive of NatWest Group (NWG.L) said on Thursday.

Speaking on the final day of the British Chambers of Commerce (BCC) global annual conference, on the need for diversity in leadership representation, Alison Rose said it was “absolutely vital we keep the diversity and inclusion agenda really firmly at the forefront as we build out of recovery”.

She added: “There is very clear evidence that women have suffered disproportionately during the pandemic because of a higher burden that they’ve had to carry around care and childcare, particularly when the schools were closed.”

It comes as studies have shown that women have been more likely than men to have lost their jobs or experienced reduced hours or pay as a result of the pandemic, and are also more fearful for their future job security.

“I think it would be a great shame if we see a setback,” she said.

Read more: How the 'entitlement gap' is holding women back at work

The BCC’s conference, which features a roster of senior political figures and business leaders, is being held virtually this year due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Rose, who was appointed to the helm of NatWest in 2019, having joined the bank as a graduate in 1992, was the first woman to lead one of the UK’s big four banks.

“As a bank, I look at my customer group, and if they are looking at an organisation that doesn’t reflect them then that is not an organisation they are really necessarily going to want to do business with, align with, or understand,” she said.

She referenced a study from McKinsey that found that diverse and inclusive teams, including ethnic diversity as well as gender, are 33% more likely to be profitable.

“It’s about creating a more commercially viable business. You get the best people and the best talent because you are creating a truly inclusive culture … and you are bringing different ideas together,” she said. “It’s a business imperative.”

Read more: Women still underrepresented in senior roles at financial institutions

Rose has previously been shortlisted for the "most influential woman in investment banking" award by Financial News, and was included in the Women in FinTech Powerlist, as well as being named in Vogue’s top 25 most influential women.

The UK government also commissioned her to report on the barriers to women starting businesses. She now sits on the Rose Review Board and is responsible for driving forward its recommendations.

“There is no one thing that is going to improve diversity” in business in the UK, she said, stressing that it has to start from companies' recruitment policies, including where and how talent is attracted.

“I don’t think you can expect that to just happen organically, you have to put interventions in place,” she added. “We’ve had success bringing a more diverse team together … we’ve been running really broad programmes and our top layers of the bank are now 44% female.”

“Inclusion and diversity policies are a non-competitive sport, so I shamelessly steal ideas from anyone who’s got great ideas so that we can implement them. Listening and learning and responding to colleagues is really important as you help develop.”

Read more: UK women earn less salary as peak pay gap rises over £8,000

Her comments come as the gender pay gap among all UK employees was 15.5% in 2020, down from 17.4% in 2019, according to figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) in April.

The gap is calculated as the difference between average hourly earnings of men and women as a proportion of men’s average hourly earnings (excluding overtime).

Since 2016, the gap has reduced among employees working in both smaller and larger (250 or more employees) companies. Since 2017, organisations employing 250 or more staff are required by the UK government to publish and report specific figures about their gender pay gap.

Watch: Why do we still have a gender pay gap?

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