HSBC CEO Says the Banking World is “Too Pale and Male”

12 11 2013

AS:  I’m doing research on the history of HSBC. I was, therefore, intrigued by the recent story about diversity in the banking sector.

Stuart Gulliver, the boss of HSBC, has spoken out against the lack of women at the top of what he called the “pale, male, stale” banking industry.

In a speech in Hong Kong, Gulliver said: “To discriminate against women is to discriminate against talent. It’s unfair. It’s wrong. And it’s a really poor business decision.” He explained: “This is not about being cuddly, it’s about competitive advantage.”

Read more here, here, and here.

Peter Thal Larsen, who is a Reuters columnist, published a thoughtful column about Gulliver’s remarks. I agree with much of what Larsen said, however, I feel that he conflated colonialism with gender discrimination in the following paragraph.

When Gulliver joined HSBC, the bank’s colonial past was still so entrenched that it did not accept women into its training programme for managers. Moreover, there was an unspoken assumption that, in order to be successful, employees had to commit their lives to the institution. For women who did manage to break into the top ranks, that often meant choosing between having a career and having children.

I think we are talking about two separate issues here, colonialism and gender discrimination. Many of the multinational founded in the heyday of the British Empire were pretty colonialist in their Human Resource Management practices until the 1960s: all of the senior executives were white Britons. Then the senior management team became more diverse, thanks to the winds of change sweeping away the last vestiges of the British Empire. That transition was separate from the question of gender discrimination. After all, it is possible to think of women working in purely domestic companies in ethnically homogeneous societies also facing a glass ceiling. Indeed, in countries such as Japan, they frequently do.  Career-minded Japanese women actually prefer to work for multinationals because they are seen as generally less discriminatory. In fact, some multinationals have been able to attract talented Japanese women because of this perception.

In some cases, it may be that efforts to promote cultural diversity actually make life harder for women looking to climb the corporate ladder in a multinational, particularly if the promotion of cultural diversity means respecting to the social norms of a host country that is culturally and politically dissimilar from the home country.

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