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Gender parity on LEP Boards by 2023 is all very well, but we shouldn’t stop there

I won’t tell you exactly what age I am but when I first started work in the Civil Service, aged 16, the Equal Pay Act was only a few years old, ushering in “equal pay for equal work”. Or that was the theory – some of the headlines recently make you wonder how far we’ve really come, but that’s for another day, writes Frances Brennan.

Having not gone to university and not having a degree, I suppose I’ve always tried to prove myself, and it was my Mum who instilled in me that if you can read a book, you can do anything.

The first half of my career was spent in what used to be called the Department of Employment and Productivity. I worked my way up through the ranks, managing Job Centres until I left in 1999 to join Working Links, part of a new breed of social inclusion providers established under Tony Blair’s New Labour government.

I was part of a small team that grew the South West area from just a handful of people in 2000 to a £25m turnover operation with 15 locations and 285 staff by 2015. It was exciting for me because I could combine my public sector experience with the freedom and pace of the private sector.

I’ve always been keen to expand my knowledge so during that time I began putting myself forward for other roles, chairing my local parish council for 10 years, being on the CBI South West Council, and chairing Common Purpose in Devon. I was vice-chair of the Heart of the South West Local Enterprise Partnership for six years, and last year joined the Board of the Cornwall & Isles of Scilly LEP.

Along the way I have experienced discrimination; I’ve been side-lined in jobs; I’ve had to fight my corner (and won); I’ve seen overt discrimination and subconscious bias, received CV’s from men assuming I was a bloke.

And if there’s one thing I’ve learned it’s that with diversity comes real strength in an organisation. Gender’s a start, and it infuriates me that we have to set targets at all, but why stop at women? In telling LEPs to achieve gender parity on their Boards by 2023, the Government is being one-dimensional. All that gives you is a different set of chromosomes, when you should be fishing in the whole gene pool; otherwise how can we claim to represent the communities we serve?

I’ve no doubt that we need more female icons out there and more women on LEP boards, but my real crusade is that you have to strive for the broadest selection of talent and ability, because why wouldn’t you?

That means LEPs should have talent and succession plans, even shadow boards with people in the pipeline as needs change. We need to look at this as a business, with a talent and succession matrix based on what the business – there therefore our communities – need.

Gender is hugely important, but this is a far bigger issue than just that, and we risk ignoring a huge amount of talent if we become obsessed with single metrics of diversity. After all, why would you do a jigsaw puzzle with only a third of the pieces?

But we also need to face reality. If setting targets around equal opportunities is one of the only ways of achieving more diversity in the short term, then so be it, massively disappointing though that is.

And as LEPs we need to challenge ourselves about the image we project. Are we reflective of the diverse communities we serve? Are we putting women forward? Are we ensuring we consider who would be the best fit for media interviews, from our diverse pool of LEP board members, rather than lazily selecting the usual suspects?

I welcome the drive to get more women into senior leadership and board roles. But the onus is on women as well. It’s up to you to do this, to seize that opportunity. So you go for it, because no-one will do it for you.

Frances Brennan is Diversity Champion on the Board of the Cornwall & Isles of Scilly Local Enterprise Partnership, and Strategic Stakeholder Lead for Pluss Ltd, an award-winning social enterprise that supports thousands of people with disabilities and other disadvantages to move towards and into employment each year. She has 35 years’ experience in the private, public and social enterprise sectors.

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Cornwall and Isles of Scilly Local Enterprise Partnership, PO Box 723, Pydar House, Pydar Street, Truro, TR1 1XU
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