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At a recent conference on creating opportunities for diverse talent, chaired by the Financial Times, Conservative peer Lord Shinquin warned that “whatever the rhetoric, to somehow dismiss equality, diversity and inclusion as a woke agenda, you face equal opportunity. is to turn it against. “.

His words were weighed by Jonathan Geldart, Director General of the Institute of Directors, who added that “under the conditions of economic uncertainty, there is a danger that the progress made in recent years will be eroded.”

This threat seems very real as the UK heads into recession. The slow but certain progress that has been made in recent years in areas such as gender pay and diverse representation on boards, as well as corporate governance and the environment, is now seen as at risk.

The CBI, Britain’s biggest business group, last week raised concerns among its members that policy progress on green issues is backsliding under a government that some see as more chill on climate change than previous administrations.

Indeed, the actions of the government are under scrutiny. In September, Jacob Rees-Mogg shocked many in business when, during his brief spell as UK business secretary, he floated the prospect of cutting gender pay reporting under the guise of burdensome work rights.

Similar sentiments were behind a recent letter from 40 MPs to Chancellor Jeremy Hunt calling for cuts to supposedly “woke” causes such as The Daily Telegraph, such as equality, diversity and inclusion, in the face of public sector spending constraints.

“Wake Up” is politically offensive in such a context, but it is important in the wider context of the UK’s weak government and spending crisis.

Positive words and actions from leaders, in parliament and in business, create the background and momentum that leads to change, such as gender pay reporting. Going back on them makes it harder to restart the stimulus in the future.

Many companies see a need for workplace inclusion and a focus on ESG, but voices complaining about the resulting cost and time burden are growing louder.

A recent report by Tulchan Communications, gathering the thoughts of FTSE chairs, was heavy on complaints that “rating” exercises by investors were jeopardizing the company’s growth.

One chair even said that “the public company model is broken” because “70 percent [board] the agenda is usually governance and regulation. . . directors have to worry about whether their gender pay gap has gone up or down, and what that might mean, and what will be written about it in the Daily Express.”

Given the anonymous responses to the report, we can assume the truth on the part of the respondents. This particular chair may be on the fringes of what most councils believe, but arguing about the gender pay gap as part of a wider variation in governance feels like going back nearly a decade.

Of course, what worries those in the boardroom is unlikely to be what worries many of their employees, who are likely to face below-inflation wage increases. Women, as well as the disabled and people from ethnic minorities or less affluent backgrounds, are often among those paid less on average, according to the Office for National Statistics and Research.

Companies that embrace the highest levels of diversity and inclusion also tend to have higher productivity and performance, which will be crucial in the challenging months ahead.

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According to McKinsey research, companies in the top quartile of gender diversity are 25 percent more likely to have above-average returns. In the case of ethnic and cultural diversity, it found that the most diverse companies outperformed by at least a third.

Analysis by the Boston Consulting Group found a strong correlation between diversity in management teams and overall innovation. Anthony Painter, of the Charted Management Institute, says all of this “evidence suggests that diverse organizations are best placed to reap the benefits of higher productivity and better decision-making”.

The UK should consider expanding reporting requirements to include mandatory reporting of nationality and disability payment omissions. Data is critical to benchmarking the industry as well as showing the problems that need to be addressed.

Many companies focus on these areas because they see the benefits. They don’t need government watchdogs when staff, customers and shareholders demand progress. But others may have seen the decline as an excuse to avoid action.

If government can’t make progress on diversity and inclusion measures that work, then business must.

Wise managers think about what their successors would want them to do for their future, not what they can do for short-term cash flow. The “anti-wake” group of MPs is right that money will be tighter as the UK enters recession. But that makes it all the more important to focus on areas where progress can easily be lost if business turns out to be most efficient and fair.

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