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Why a dearth of data is blocking disabled access to the boardroom

The lack of information about the number of CEOs with disabilities needs to be remedied if companies are to benefit from improved diversity at senior level

After Neil Heslop graduated from the University of Newcastle with a law degree in 1988, he conducted an experiment. Understanding that the fact he’d lost his sight could have an impact on his employability, he made 20 job applications. Identical in every other respect, half of the CVs he sent out mentioned that he was blind and the other half did not. The 10 CVs with that disclosure landed him one interview, while the 10 without elicited nine.

Heslop went on to spend 25 years in the telecoms industry, serving as CEO of US company Cincinnati Bell moving into the third sector, where he currently works as CEO of the Charities Aid Foundation. 

He observes that his success is far from typical for blind people. “For anyone with my disability, it’s pretty unusual even to be in paid work. And it’s extremely unusual for them to have the kinds of careers that I’ve been fortunate enough to have.”

Heslop is probably right. When it comes to achieving ethnic and gender diversity on boards, numerous studies have suggested that some progress has been made and more work is still to be done. But it seems that disabled people are so underrepresented at the top level that the data is barely monitored. Experts believe that both measurement and management are needed to change the situation.

Going by what few studies there have been, it is bleak. The Valuable 500, a global collective of 500 CEOs working on disability inclusion, surveyed FTSE-100 companies last year and found that not one senior executive or manager in these firms had disclosed a disability. Research conducted by EY in 2018 concluded that 7% of CEOs had some lived experience of a disability, yet 80% of these were hiding that fact. 

Reasons for the lack of data vary from country to country, but non-disclosure is a key contributing factor, while many disabilities are invisible. Where companies do publish information on the subject, there are trust issues.

“Yes, disability is a characteristic that people won’t always be comfortable about disclosing,” says Sophia Moreau, an award-winning anti-discrimination campaigner and diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) consultant. “But that’s not necessarily a fault of the individual concerned. It’s on their organisation. People have understandable fears that their competence may be questioned by their employer if they disclose their disability.”

People have understandable fears that their competence may be questioned by their employer if they disclose their disability

Ethical arguments aside, there is a strong business case for having more disabled people in leadership roles, especially when it comes to identifying with disabled consumers and their families. This is hard to ignore, given that KPMG has estimated their global spending power to be more than £5.8tn. McKinsey & Co has also found evidence that more diverse and inclusive businesses outperform those that aren’t. But another argument for widening the net is that people with disabilities are inherent problem-solvers – crucial for steering an organisation through testing times.

After Steve Ingham, CEO of recruitment firm PageGroup, suffered life-changing spinal injuries from a skiing accident in 2019, resuming his role was never in question once he was fit enough to do so. Returning to work as the pandemic hit the UK, he found that thousands of employees were looking to him for answers. 

Ingham was not fazed by the weight of expectation. He believes that the key lesson he learnt from his accident, “when I was lying in a river with a broken back, bleeding heavily and close to death with hypothermia, was ‘do not panic’. If I’d panicked then, I would have died.”

PageGroup went on to thrive amid the Covid crisis. “Our results today are higher than they’ve ever been in our history – with fewer people,” Ingham reports.

Reputationally as well, good DEI attracts talented people for whom such values are becoming increasingly important. That’s one of the conclusions of Staying Ahead in a Changing World: the skills leaders in financial services need, a research report published in November 2021 by industry body the Financial Services Skills Commission (FSSC).

Despite the strong case for getting more people with disabilities on boards, there are clearly still factors preventing this from happening, which could be down to a lack of understanding. Moreau points to the social model of disability, which holds that people are disabled by barriers in society – other people’s prejudices and limited access – not by their impairment. 

Reporting the relevant data would be a good starting point for tackling the problem. Industry bodies such as the FSSC, the Confederation of British Industry and the Construction Industry Council encourage members to disclose their performance on diversity metrics, including disability, but it’s clear that not all employers are on the same page. 

“We’re conscious that some of our members are very small – they don’t have many resources and they may be new to this,” notes Claire Tunley, CEO of the FSSC. “But that’s no excuse for not looking at the issue.” 

Meanwhile, the Valuable 500 is seeking to lobby stock market indices to make reporting on disability metrics a criterion for listing.

Businesses are also piloting solutions. Microsoft is encouraging self-identification through employee resource groups rather than the HR department, for instance, while EY is establishing a centre of excellence designed to harness the skills of neurodivergent employees. 

Ingham says that, because PageGroup’s executive board is not as diverse in its composition as he would like, the company has created a more diverse shadow board to challenge its strategic decision-making.

Solutions can be as simple as ensuring best practice in fair and open recruitment at senior level. The wording of job descriptions is important in this respect. Moreau warns that even stating that prior board experience is desirable may deter applications from perfectly good potential candidates in under-represented groups. 

The private sector may have made some advances in recent years in recruiting, developing and promoting disabled people to leadership roles. Despite this, it’s still uncertain whether Heslop would be spared the same level of discrimination today if he were to repeat the CV experiment he ran more than three decades ago. 

The need to accelerate progress is urgent, as research indicates that age and disability are closely linked. Given that workforces worldwide are ageing, many people could be leaving employment prematurely when they should be preparing to become CEOs.

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