By Daniel Hunter

Changing the diversity of UK plc particularly at board level continues to be an uphill struggle; with the pace of change protracted and prolonged, according to Ernst & Young’s UK Chairman Steve Varley, but things are moving in the right direction.

Speaking at an EY women’s network event for FTSE chairmen last night (Tuesday) — at which Sir Roger Carr chairman of Centrica, President of the CBI and founding member of the 30% Club, was guest speaker — Varley expressed frustration over the pace of change, saying that getting people to think, feel and act differently on diversity is difficult.

“Is this just one of those areas where change comes slowly, where we have to be patient?” he asked guests. “I hope not, because I don’t want to be patient; we shouldn’t be measuring progress and success in inches, but instead in miles.”

Acknowledging all of the great work being done by great organisations such as the 30% Club to shift the needle in the debate on diversity in UK business, Varley said he believes that businesses’ decades-long commitment to the principle of diversity was leading to organisations doing things differently. He cited the pending launch of the UK’s first National Equality Standard (NES) led by EY, this autumn as an example.

EY has more female UK partners (17%) than any other Big Four accountancy firm. In October 2012 the firm took a bold decision to publicly announce targets for both female and black and minority ethnic new partner admissions — something no other professional services firm has replicated in the UK. It is due to voluntarily report on its progress in the autumn.

Varley referenced these “targets with teeth” during his speech, but conceded that in and of themselves targets alone weren’t enough to change the diversity in our boardrooms. “There is a danger we can reduce diversity to just a numbers game, chasing targets,” he said. “Really to me the starting point to changing behaviours is changing attitudes. And that means changing the way we think about diversity.”

Joanna Santinon, tax partner and sponsor for the EY Women’s Network, which launched its FTSE women’s dinner series two years ago, also addressed guests. She called for greater diversity on candidate shortlists. “Too frequently we hear from FTSE chairs that they are receiving shortlists that are less gender diverse than they would like. Given the wealth of female talent in the marketplace, there should be no reason why every shortlist for senior boardroom level positions cannot have gender balance.”

Varley concluded, “Unless there is real progress on equality, there is a danger we are all just colluding in a fantasy. We really all want a place where equality is not just a stated principle but a universal reality.”

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