On Tuesday, September 29th, PubAffairs Bruxelles hosted a discussion on the theme of diversity management in European business with Mrs Anu Ritz, European Commission, Directorate General for Justice and Consumers, Mr Brando Benifei MEP, Member of the Committee on Employment and Social Affairs of the European Parliament, Mrs Cécile Coune, Chief Executive Officer, Aviabel and Ms Annica Ryngbeck, Policy & Advocacy Adviser at Social Platform.
The debate was moderated by Mrs Ruth Grant, co-Chair of the Hogan Lovells Diversity and Inclusion Committee.
In the first part of the debate, Mrs Ruth Grant, presented the activities of the Hogan Lovells Diversity and Inclusion Committee, and listed the main challenges of the diversity management question. Subsequently, she introduced the speakers and the main topics which the debate would touch upon. She then asked a yes/no question of the public, which was to be put again to the audience at the end of the debate. The question was: “Do you think that diversity and inclusion promote growth?”. She then gave the floor to the speakers who could proceed to give their preliminary statements and to discuss the issues at stake.
Mrs Coune started her speech by stating that a positive answer to the preliminary question is the very reason for which “Women on Board” in Belgium and “European Women on Board” were created respectively in 2009 and in 2013. The set up of these two primarily gender diversity-oriented organisations was a consequence of the lack of women on company boards in several EU member states and aimed spreading the idea that equal opportunities are not an end in themselves, but a means to achieve better corporate governance and results. She added that the gender issue has been useful to make the case of diversity in general and that, although the debate about the effectiveness of quotas is still an open question, their application may in some cases be considered as a necessary evil to counterbalance actual discrimination. Mrs Coune explained that there are several arguments in favour of diversity since the combination of globalisation and demographics have made the global search for talents exponentially more difficult and one of the responses is to be found in the female pool of talents. She also stated that if the question of gender is properly addressed, it can represent a historical opportunity to increase the global economic growth, as the example of the BRIC countries demonstrates. In addition, the human capital factor is of increasingly pivotal importance as one “intangible asset”; according to a study of the French Institute of Political Science, the GDP of France could increase significantly, if an effective strategy of valorisation of such assets is put in place. Last but not least, an empirical research of a global market player found a positive correlation between gender-balanced entities and their client retention, customer satisfaction, positive organic growth and operative profits, discovering that gender-balanced management tends to drive the whole of the organisation towards better settings.
Mr Benifei started his intervention by acknowledging that in several circles there is an increased awareness of the fact that inclusion is beneficial for growth. However he also warned that in the wider European society this is not yet the case. Mr Benifei continued by stating that in the last decade the process of transformation of European societies towards a more diverse composition, although with different degrees of acceleration, has sparked different reactions and sentiments and come under the spotlight of the legislative agenda both within EU member states and EU institutions. The examples of the Italian Parliament dealing with rights of foreign citizens born in Italy without Italian citizenship as well as the question of marriage of gay couples, are valuable but partial examples of this process of transformation. The MEP agreed with Mrs Coune on the fact that global growth would greatly benefit from increased inclusion of women, while remarking that the implementation of diversity management principles is in his opinion more difficult for small and micro enterprises which constitute the majority of the undertakings in the European Union. Mr Benifei also stated that a synergy between the business community and European institutions is necessary in order to find effective and creative solutions, as witnessed by the example of the Diversity Charters in Europe. Also, a more flexible use of the European social Fund is needed. Furthermore, he underlined the importance of keeping data up to date and following the results of the 2015 OECD review of corporate governance, while pointing out that EU institutions are in a stalemate on the Equal Treatment Directive, as the Council cannot find an internal agreement on the Directive content. He concluded by stating that the European Union should also take into consideration the review of its powers vis-à-vis social policies as economic and financial integration should lead also towards a common social policy.
Mrs Anu Ritz began her speech by agreeing with Mr Benifei that the current trends are leading towards a more diverse society, an asset which the European Union should foster. She continued by explaining that the question of diversity must be properly addressed and also underlined how this process has the potential to enhance smart and inclusive growth. Mrs Ritz added that, although the Equal Treatment Directive is suffering from a fairly long-standing stalemate in the Council, the European Union has legislated upon the question of discrimination. However, the introduction of the Equal Treatment Directive could fill in the gaps of the current legislation both inside and outside the workplace. Mrs Ritz continued by explaining that legislation is only a part of the actions which should be undertaken as the Commission also highly values a proactive role in civil society and the private sector as reflected in the current work of the Diversity Charters, a voluntary European initiative to promote diversity and equal opportunities in the workplace. As the first Charter was launched in France in 2004, the growth of the National Charters to fifteen member states representing about 7500 companies across Europe, seems a valuable result. This type of voluntary initiative is crucial for the exploitation of the diversity potential in Europe because it leads towards more ownership and leadership of the diversity management processes in the private sector. She concluded by stating that, although with fewer resources than large companies, SMEs have responded positively and proactively to the Diversity Charters’ work.
Ms Ryngbeck began her intervention by stating that from her perspective the main issue to be discussed is the role of the EU with regard to the issue of diversity management promotion. While clarifying that the Equal Treatment legislation will also protect EU citizens against discrimination outside the workplace, she agreed with the Commission representative that this aspect of the EU law, when in place, will fill in the gaps of the current regulatory setting. She also remarked that the legislation in place today was adopted back in the year 2000 and that the seven years’ stalemate of the Equal Treatment Directive in the Council does not give a positive signal to citizens and civil society. In addition, she underlined that both the current and the proposed directive are aimed at protecting against discrimination, but do not prevent nor promote equal opportunities. She continued by explaining that the EU Member States are in general not keen on adopting new regulatory measures at the moment, including any measures in favour of equal opportunities. Ms Ryngbeck added that a change in perspective and attitude of both EU institutions and the European society towards discrimination and social issues would be highly beneficial as there are persistent inequalities and alarming societal trends. The whole of the EU should lead by example both in the private sector and public institutions: setting up good practices to promote equal opportunities in order to hire and to retain employees according to diversity management principles is still needed, and reaffirming the principle of equal opportunities beyond the question of economic growth is essential. She concluded her intervention by highlighting the example of migrants who are often described as successful entrepreneurs, whereas, according to her views, migrants choice of setting up their own businesses is often a result of discrimination in access to the labour market.
The final part of the debate and the Q&A session also covered the following issues: the question of corporate social responsibility in Europe, the Commission proposal on the issue of human rights in business, the comparison of diversity management methods around the world, how to tackle discrimination without prioritising the aim of the action upon a given single group, the current EU legislation on discrimination, the Diversity Charter movement, the role of the EU with regard to social policy issues.
Do you want to go further into the issues discussed in our debate? Check our list of selected sources which we have provided for you
Diversity Charters across the EU, European Commission
Employment and Social Affairs Committee of the European Parliament
The EU should lead by example in diversity managemen, Social Platform
Global Diversity Management, The Oxford Handbook of Diversity and Work
Diversity Management Is the Key to Growth: Make It Authentic, Forbes