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Diversity initiatives in employers as a symptom of decline?

I have been wanting to write this post in a long time. I still haven’t reached a conclusive answer but there’s one issue I’m thinking about a lot. It’s about diversity initiatives of big employers, in particular women’s initiatives. The truth is, I’m still not sure if they are such a good thing (though on the surface they obviously bring advantages to women working in those companies).

What got me thinking was a comment made by a senior colleague I worked with a lot during my time at McKinsey. Before becoming a management consultant, he worked for Hewlett Packard for many years. One day he was commenting how HP used to be a great company but that now it had lost much of its attractiveness. Then he went on to say that it was when more and more women reached the top levels of HP that things really started to go down. I was startled by the remark because he is a very fair and reasonable person who has enjoyed working with me and has respected and supported me very much over the last couple of years. In fact, his wife was a very intelligent feminist and a full-time working mum, so he wasn’t the usual type you would expect such a comment from. So I concluded that his observation might have been correct, I think he just got the causal relationship wrong. Maybe things were starting to go down at exactly that time, but I believe the decline of males in the company was not the cause but the effect of the decline.

I have found a lot of evidence for this hypothesis. Doesn’t it surprise you that investment banks and management consultancies are launching all these women’s initiatives these days? Doesn’t it surprise you that when things went badly in 2001/2002, these same companies fired women in droves, and now they somehow want to have a lot of women working for them? Obviously, they say they want “the best talent” and therefore can’t focus only on 50% of the “talent pool”. Though this makes sense, I think it is also a symptom of the declining attractiveness of an employer – for some reason, the top students aren’t applying as much anymore, so they need to go fishing for applicants in additional “pools”. For example, have you ever heard of any private equity firms or hedge funds launching “women’s initiatives”? No? Isn’t it interesting? They have not even got half of the female share of i-banks and consultancies, but they don’t feel the need. The industry is booming but somehow they can hire more than enough people fishing only from 50% of the talent pool, because many guys who would have wanted to work in i-banks and consultancies in the old days want to workfor PE or VC firms nowadays.

Here’s one thing I observed at business school: lots of guys I talked to want to go to “Private Equity or Venture Capital”. One fellow admit from India even joked at dinner “if I hear the word Private Equity one more time today, I’m leaving!!”. Equally, my husband commented the next day that all the female partners he talked to during the partners’ club event proudly declared “my husband wants to work in PE” and “my boyfriend wants to work in PE”. So, interestingly, most of the guys now want to work in PE (=more money than IB/MC), while the women are happy and grateful that for some mysterious reason, the i-banks and management consultancies are hosting women’s events and handing out scholarships.

So that is what I think about the whole issue. I think women should control their enthusiasm about these developments. We should think harder about what they mean. In the most likely case, they mean that there are more attractive and better paid jobs out there now, and that guys have higher aspirations/ higher self confidence and go for the most attractive jobs. At the same time guys start looking for other jobs to take, women are grateful to get the chance to work in very tough jobs that were previously associated with high prestige but have already peaked.

I know this post may be provocative or disappointing to some, but I think it helps to be realistic about what’s going on in the job market. Also, I’m hoping to hear other people’s thoughts on this issue, what do you guys and ladies think? Do you think diversity initiatives are a good thing?

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