Be conscientious about diversity

CAPSIGlogo-2014On Wednesday, I introduced the panel at a CIPR construction and property special interest group (CAPSIG) discussion on diversity in construction and PR. It was clear from the contributions (see the Storify stream, watch the YouTube video) that construction has a long way to go to build a new reputation as genuinely diverse, equal and inclusive, rather than “male and pale”. We heard anecdotes regarding wolf whistles and male attitudes to women that belonged in the 1960s – not 50 years later – but also ideas about how professional communicators can help by capturing and sharing positive stories.

Cover your knees, girls!

Dartford Grammar School arms

Attitudes reminiscent of the 1960s, and professional communication, have been in my mind this weekend too. My daughter, a sixth-former at Dartford Grammar School, was last week informed of a new dress code at the school (which is boys-only, apart from the sixth form). Eight months ago she started at DGS after we had invested in suitable attire for her “appropriate to a professional work environment“; last Wednesday (6 May), an email from the school announced an amended policy “which will be effective from Monday 11th May.”

The most significant changes include an insistence that female sixth formers wear “a dark tailored suit … worn with a plain collared blouse or shirt,” (previously, the requirement was for a “plain blouse or top”) and that “skirts should be knee-length or longer” (previously, “skirts should be no shorter than 10cm above the knee”).

DGS jeopardising its reputation

To me, this is a poorly managed and poorly researched change, and one with potentially damaging effects on Dartford Grammar School’s reputation. Let me explain:

  1. For a start, this policy change has been announced at very short notice, with seemingly no prior consultation with parents (advised in DoE guidance to school governors) and with just four days for parents to buy their daughters new tops and longer skirts (no requirement on boys to buy new clothing).
  2. Implementation is also poorly timed, coinciding with a key coursework requirement (an ‘extended essay’ for many of the lower sixth form doing the International Baccalaureate) – and some girls have been sharing their frustration on social media regarding the policy (while the boys study, the girls must shop?).
  3. The “collared blouse or shirt” requirement is surprisingly difficult to find. My wife looked in four large local stores and found nothing suitable; online searches were similarly unsuccessful. Moreover, not only are women’s plain blouses or shirts difficult to buy, the requirement is potentially discriminatory insofar as Google searches showed men’s plain shirts are about six times more common, and less expensive, than those for women.
  4. And as for the “knee-length or longer” requirement…! Applying contemporary standards of conventional dress, it seems to me that girl members of DGS’s sixth form are being treated less favourably than boys, restricting girls’ choice of what to wear in order to achieve the required standard of smartness – whereas, in the real world, professional work environments carry no such constraints. Other school sixth forms (Altrincham Grammar School, for example) apply DGS’s previous 10cm hemline policy (even nearby Dartford Girls and Wilmington Grammar allow 2 inches above the knee), and I fail to see what educational purpose is served by lowering DGS hemlines – unless it is to manage the testosterone levels of surrounding male pupils (and teachers)? And is insisting girls cover up the best way to do this?

Research, consult, listen … then communicate

The lesson for DGS is that even something as apparently simple as a dress code change can, if mishandled, have unforeseen consequences and result in different treatment of individuals by virtue of their sex. To me, the school failed to research the implications of its policy change, and did not (at least as far as this parent is concerned) consult or listen.

Unfortunately, this kind of approach is sometimes still applied in construction organisations. Decisions may be taken with little (or even no) thought to the effects on different groups (preparing for the CAPSIG diversity event, for example, my previous blog post had comments including one relating to personal protective equipment, PPE – almost the construction industry equivalent of school uniform). We clearly need to be particularly conscientious regarding any potential diversity, equality and inclusion issues in a policy change and associated communications programme – unanticipated consequences can sometimes derail an organisation’s best intentions.

(My wife telephoned DGS about the policy change last week and is writing to the school to complain. If other parents do the same, the situation may change. Watch this space.)

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Paul Wilkinson is the founder of Limited, a specialist PR and technology consultancy. He is an independent practitioner, a Fellow of the CIPR, and chairs the Construction and Property group (CAPSIG) and is the past chair of the CIPR Policy and Campaigns Committee.

  1. I am sorry I missed your event, I would have like to contribute to your discussions. Another time!

    The business case for diversity and inclusion had long been made – and we definitely need to think wider than gender to include religion, sexual orientation, disability and socio-economic background.

    I agree there is reputational risk/damage when organisations get diversity and inclusion wrong. Your daughter’s school is going to be learning the hard way…

  2. Sadly this discussion constrains thinking on diversity to the issue of gender imbalance (which is a bit narrow, especially in the context of the construction industry). It also misses out on a few key facts that suggests the panel are not familiar with what is actually happening in their own sector. e.g.
    1. The construction industry leads the way in terms of social mobility – lot’s of ex apprentices and YTS trainees sitting on boards.
    2. Some of the larger construction industry leaders have very active LGBT networks

    Why not focus on the positive, progressive stories to raise awareness and promote the wider issues of diversity, rather than go down the rather cliched criticism of “too male, to pale”?

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