Different takes on diversity issues
The enduring appeal of the [email protected] series of lunchtime seminars is not hard to identify. Each event sees leading academics from the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology speak on a topic with direct relevance for the local business community.
The resulting interaction introduces executives to some of the latest research-based findings, but it also provides new ideas and perspectives which can have a direct bearing on productivity and performance in the day-to-day work environment.
The most recent event, held in Central on April 18, focused on diversity and inclusion. Approaching the subject from two quite different angles, the two main speakers showed how an area which is high on many corporate agendas can entail unseen complexities and surprises.
Leading off, Christy Zhou Koval, Assistant Professor in the Department of Management at HKUST Business School, spoke about how gender stereotypes contribute to differential evaluations of men and women in the workplace.
She explained that although women now make up about half the labour force in Hong Kong – in fact 51 per cent of all employees according to the 2016 census - they are still largely absent from the top tiers of management. This is despite striving to work at such levels and using many of the same career advancement strategies as men.
That points to lingering gender stereotypes and bias against women, which have clear implications for equality in the workplace. It is highlighted by figures showing that men hold
66.8 per cent of managerial positions and that a disparity in monthly incomes still remains, with women earning less on average across all levels.
“Gender stereotypes are an important factor contributing to inequality across culture and time,” Zhou Koval said. “There is the tradition that men are breadwinners and associated with agentic traits of being confident, competent, aggressive and ambitious.”
Women, on the other hand, are traditionally seen to have communal traits which make them kind, friendly, helpful and sympathetic. And, even today, those broad stereotypes persist in our culture in everything from advertising and news reports to job postings and social media.
“This leads to the ‘think manager, think male’ phenomenon, as a result of both descriptive and prescriptive stereotypes, [causing people to wrongly assume] women have less potential to become leaders,” Zhou Koval said. “That has consequences for judgements on creativity [and other abilities] which are so important for the knowledge economy.”
So, if modern-day managers are to maximise the potential of a diverse workforce, they must acknowledge the situation and, in practical terms, be prepared to initiate things like “unconscious bias” training.
“Sometimes, we don’t realise we have or endorse gender stereotypes,” Zhou Koval said
“But implicit attitude tests can help to determine your outlook, and data can be used to analyse an organisation’s culture and metrics across different dimensions of gender inequality. You can then nudge managers to make better decisions.”
Following on, David Daniels, who is also an Assistant Professor in the Department of Management at HKUST Business School, addressed the question of whether investors value diversity, based on evidence from Silicon Valley.
In broad terms, he noted, companies like Google and the other big tech firms say they value diversity and inclusion, but comments from employees and other sources can suggest just the opposite.
Therefore, it made sense to consider if the investors pouring money into the sector think there is a business case for more diversity in Silicon Valley and whether it would improve or harm corporate performance or, in effect, make no difference.
To assess this, Daniels drew on stock-price and market-related data showing how investors reacted to key announcements made by big- name tech companies over the last few years about their respective levels of demographic diversity.
“Investors’ reactions suggest that adding more diversity would be a net positive for these companies,” he said. “It’s consistent with the fact that companies with more gender diversity on their corporate boards tend to have a higher return on equity, sales and investment capital.”
He noted, though, that this latter fact could be a matter of causality or “reverse causality” i.e. the better firms were able to appoint more women directors because they were already doing well. There could also be a third variable linked to the specific industry and culture.
“Silicon Valley brings the pros and cons of diversity in innovation-driven organisations to the forefront,” Daniels said.
On the one hand, Daniels said, investors may fear that efforts towards greater gender and racial diversity could be causing conflict and tensions.
On the other hand, investors may expect benefits from diversity such as a broader talent pool, more synergy, a reduction in harmful stereotypes, and less corporate over-confidence. These days, there are also political, legal, moral and ethical reasons that might strengthen the case for more diversity.
“Overall, we think investors still see productivity and performance factors as the primary reason for increasing diversity,” Daniels said. “But if levels of diversity are sub-optimally low, firms need to understand the full range of internal and external benefits they may be losing out on.”