Time to redefine talent for International Women's Day

Jenny Lincoln, Business in the Community Research and Policy Officer discusses the slow progress of workplace parity and calls for a redefinition of talent. 


Most employers accept the business case for diversity and the importance of social mobility, yet the UK’s top professions are still dominated by privately educated, white men. Research recently published by the Sutton Trust[i] found that despite some improvements in gender and race diversity, we still have a long way to go to improve the social mix of professions.

Progress seems painfully slow and with the theme of International Women’s Day in 2016 #pledgeforparity, perhaps it is time to reassess our definition of ‘talent’ in 21st century workplaces so that we can truly take action towards equality.

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Those who attended independent, fee-paying schools are shockingly overrepresented in the UK’s positions of power. They account for only 7% of the population, yet make up 74% of judges in the high court and court of appeals, 71% of top military officers, 51% of top journalists and 34% of higher positions in business.[ii]

Unfortunately there is rarely a gender analysis of social mobility research, but we do know that gender has a strong impact on earning potential, career progression and social mobility. The top jobs researched by the Sutton Trust are overwhelmingly male. Women account for 45.5% of the UK’s workforce, but only 30% of barristers and judges and 22% of officers in the armed forces.[iii] A miniscule 9.8% of FTSE 100 executive directors[iv] are women, yet they make up 98% of personal assistants and secretaries.[v]

Improving the gender balance at the higher paying, senior levels is crucial for achieving gender equality and an equal distribution of power, but we must also challenge the stark realities for women at the lower end of the socio-economic scale. Low paid women are often left out of modern feminist debates, such as agile working, ‘women on boards’ or the gender pay gap, yet deep inequalities exist. Women make up 60% of those earning less than the living wage; they are most affected by austerity cuts and ‘women’s work’ is continually devalued[vi]. Work that is still seen as ‘women’s work’, such as cleaning and caring, is some of the lowest paid, least valued and most precarious.[vii]

If we are to truly achieve parity – at all levels of employment – we need to design an employment system that facilitates equality of opportunity, rather than one that favours privately educated, white men. This requires employers to interrogate their existing definition of ‘talent’.

The affinity bias of many recruiters in the top professions works to reinforce a particular definition of talent, which leads to similar groups of people staying in power. When those recruiters are also white and male, affinity bias is multiplied.  The closed networks in which many internships and positions are still promoted and filled also continue to disadvantage the lower classes, women and ethnic minority people.

Employers can benefit hugely from tackling inequality, but a sustainable approach is necessary. Strategies around fairer recruitment of placements or new starters must be policy-driven and apply across an entire organisation, to ensure that all individuals subscribe. Yet more than that, policy must absolutely be driven by senior leaders who recognise the need to change organisational culture and values.

Employers must redefine their definition of ‘talent’, and start valuing the contributions, skills and potential of people from all walks of life if they are truly committed to parity for all.

Without it, employers risk staying in the 18th Century rather than being responsive to a 21st Century world.