"This is not diversity for diversity’s sake."Louis Ashworth

“I object to graduate schemes aimed at women,” remarked the (white male) student standing opposite me. “This type of leg up disadvantages guys like me, who have worked hard and forked out thousands in our pursuit of employment.”

I was stunned and, in my astonishment, my retort was far from the Erin Brockovich-style put-down I had envisaged. This statement has, nonetheless, lingered in the back of my mind – we need to understand, and to establish, why supporting women through graduate schemes is critical to gender equality.

Schemes like the Civil Service Fast Stream and Deloitte’s graduate training program mould the next generation of business and political leaders, fostering ideas and strategies which steer the direction of our economy, welfare policies and technological innovation. Applications for these graduate schemes are competitive and gruelling; countless people have slaved through multiple rounds of online tests, assessment days and interviews, only to be rejected at the final hurdle.

When diversity is reduced to a box ticking exercise, industries fail to nurture and retain female talent and structures do not change

However, women are systematically underrepresented in new-hires on these schemes. This is not from lack of female talent: indeed, while university courses achieve gender parity, this fails to translate to later recruitment. Engineering, retail and advertising sectors are amongst the worst offenders. Earlier this year, figures from software company Oleeo revealed that 70% of graduate scheme places in these industries were awarded to men. Law doesn’t perform much better, with females accounting for almost 60% of graduates, yet just 42% of hires to major training schemes, a figure which has failed to shift substantially over the last 5 years.

A similar pattern emerges across the arts and media, too. Women make up 60-70% of arts graduates, yet only 30% of professional artists, directors and playwrights are female, and just a quarter of contributors to radio, television and newspaper globally.

This has repercussions for women’s economic status. On graduating, women expect to earn almost £4,000 less than their male peers for their first job, according to TUC figures. With initial salaries averaging £25,900, compared to £29,700 for their male counterparts, this does not bode well for female bargaining power.

Female-only graduate schemes and programmes targeted at women endeavour to redress this disparity, and have been championed by several organisations, albeit under mounting pressure from lobby groups. Schemes like PwC and EY’s Women in Business aim to inspire and support female students seeking an experience in professional services.

Structural change also requires renewed dialogue on the value of diversity in the workplace, away from a zero-sum game

Accademia is also reacting. For example, Prof Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell’s £2.3m bursary scheme at the Institute of Physics funds female physics researchers, a field where women account for just 28% of employees.

This is not diversity for diversity’s sake. A few more feminine faces amongst the sea of white males in the corporate and political elite is not the goal. As Anne-Marie Aimafidon, co-founder of Stemettes- an enterprise working to inspire women in science and tech- asserts, “Diversity is important in any industry, diversity of thought leads to innovation.”

Indeed, McKinsey & Co has shown that companies with the greatest gender diversity on executive teams are 21% more likely to outperform peers on profitability.

Yet, this liberal, feminist, ’add women and stir approach is not the solution. PwC and EY’s efforts are commendable, but a 3-day vacation program is unlikely to shatter the glass ceiling. When diversity is reduced to a box ticking exercise, industries fail to nurture and retain female talent and structures do not change. Male bias is present throughout the education and vocational training system, and women must be exposed to a wider range of opportunities before they venture into the world of work.

This approach has been championed by Stemettes. Through mentoring programmes and female only hackathons, the organisation encourages young women to cultivate their expertise during undergraduate study. Similarly, Cambridge’s very own 'Women in Media’ which runs networking events and talks from leading females in their fields, increases students’ understanding of the industry, demonstrating how to (putting it crudely) ‘play the game’.


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Securing additional female talent also requires adapting graduate schemes to suit their needs. Women do four times more unpaid care work than men, thus flexible working hours may be required to help launch their careers. Far from giving women a ‘leg up’ – as asserted by my learned friend – this is simply adapting to the mountain of unpaid responsibilities assigned to women, even in our ‘enlightened’ age.

This is not to essentialise the female experience. Not all women share the same experience of the job market; race, ethnicity and class also inhibit access to employment, something our (pitifully small) community of BAME students here at Cambridge understand all too well. However, such adaptations are a positive start, shifting the ways we value our workforce and accommodating their needs.

As such, I return to the initial exchange with my fellow student, who feared expanding opportunities for women obstructed his own clutch on the career ladder. This conversation is a sad reminder that such parochial attitudes towards diversity are more commonplace than we care to admit. Structural change also requires renewed dialogue on the value of diversity in the workplace, away from a zero-sum game. How and why we value diversity – not simply gender parity – is an essential conversation, particularly at a university such as Cambridge. Unfortunately, that discussion is way beyond the word limit for this article; perhaps a PhD thesis?

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