Meet a male champion for women’s inclusion

October 22, 2020

Liza RobbinsBy Liza Robbins.

Last year, Ian Smith decided to reduce his working hours, taking off one day every fortnight.

“It’s not because I’ve got one foot in retirement – it was for my own mental wellbeing,” he says.

Ian, who is Chair of Kreston member Bishop Fleming in the UK, is the main carer for his wife, who has a degenerative brain disease. And he felt strongly that he needed regular time away from the pressures of home and work, to unwind.

He deliberately talked very openly about his decision. The reaction was overwhelmingly positive – especially from women, who are statistically four times as likely as men to have to reduce their working hours in order to care for children or even parents.

“There is a lot of pressure not to discuss these issues, and it really helped me understand the guilt that people – again, especially women – feel when they need to work part-time. And the stigma! People make so many unfair assumptions…”

The experience helped Ian with his Board responsibility for diversity and inclusion in his firm. He also used it to stimulate more debate about mental health for senior male business leaders, for whom this has been a taboo subject.

Recently, he was recognised for his efforts when he was shortlisted for Male Diversity Champion of the Year at the 2020 Women in Accountancy and Finance Awards in the UK.

Although on this occasion he wasn’t the winner (he was “Highly Commended” by the judges), he has an important message about how to make our firms stronger by making them more open and welcoming. So I reached out Ian to discuss his experiences.

“Diversity is critical for every business,” he told me.

Part of the challenge of the profession – in Western countries, at least – is “that there are a lot of people like me in charge – white, of an age and often from a very privileged position,” he says. Of course in other countries, other groups may be entrenched at the top.

“You need more diversity to build teams with different ways of thinking.”

He includes in this gender and sexual orientation as well as disability, educational and economic background and even personality types.

“That’s diversity in its fullest sense.”

Ian adds that “our clients don’t want clones… They want people to bring their real authentic personalities to bear when we deal with them. And people can only do that if they’re comfortable that we’re really happy for them to be themselves.”

That’s why, over the past few years, he helped set up a women’s mentoring network in Bishop Fleming.

The firm made improvements to the firm’s maternity pay.

And they also reviewed the firm’s interviewing and recruitment process, to reduce the impact of unconscious bias – that is, stereotypes held against certain groups without even being aware of it.

They made the interviewing panels more diverse, and changed the language in some job ads to be more inclusive, and show openness to part-time and flexible work.

Recently, Bright Futures – their personal development programme for young managers – has focused on social mobility. Bishop Fleming are one of the UK’s leading auditors in the education sector, “and we want to support people with different backgrounds coming into the profession,” says Ian.

The impact on the firm has been significant.

“We’ve got more female partners than we had before, and a dialogue that wasn’t happening before,” says Ian. “We also have more people working part-time in senior positions – I don’t think some would have been confident trying this previously.”

“The atmosphere is more creative than before, and some of our best client relationships are being developed by women who may not have advanced as far a decade ago, under older ways of working. Our clients love it.”

His role became possible when he became Chair in 2017.

Ian says that some people “were surprised” when he made diversity a personal priority, but leadership on this issue has to come from the top.

“It’s nearly always the HR director who’s leading. I could count on the fingers of one hand the number of times I’ve met a chief executive or managing partner at diversity seminars and workshops – and that’s wrong. To make this work, you need buy-in at the highest level.”

He emphasises that he did none of the work alone. He sees his role as supporting and sponsoring initiatives for which there is already grassroots demand, and supporting a really professional and creative People Team.

Some may find it ironic that it has taken a man to lead the agenda for women’s equality. Ian is unapologetic.

“I am who I am and I can’t help the position I have found myself in,” says Ian. “I see my role as facilitating other people so it’s not a 60-year-old white male who has to do this in the future.

“I do what I can to help people using my privileged position, and if I can make a difference, I won’t beat myself up for that.”

And this visionary implores other leaders to overcome “ingrained habits”, and recognise that even if your firm is very successful, increasing diversity is an opportunity to “make us a much better place to work.”

Amen to that!