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Ed Alford: Why and How Every Man Can Drive Change for Women in Business

Ed Alford

In March 2017, everywoman Ambassador Ed Alford was named one of the top 30 men tackling gender diversity in the UK workplace. Here, Vice President of Enterprise Systems, part of the IT function, discusses his own and BP’s commitment to a diverse and inclusive culture, where everyone is valued and treated equally, and can be at their best.

Was there a catalyst for you to become a gender diversity champion?

Ed Alford standing in front of a sponsor boardGrowing up on the west coast of Scotland, I was very aware of different types of discrimination around me, and formed an opinion early on that this was wrong. So when I saw gender discrimination happening in the workforce, how talent was being constrained and the wrong things were being focussed on, it pushed a button in me. A female colleague made me realise that as a senior guy I could change things, so that for me was the start of it all.

What lessons have you learned in your quest for gender balance in your team at BP?

In some STEM fields or areas where it’s largely a male population, it’s very easy to come out with excuses, to be complacent. “We’d love to have more women in leadership, but we don’t have any women to promote,” is one of the classics. It’s simply not enough to say that you want a gender diverse team; you have to take action, to communicate with recruiters and headhunters.

It’s not about saying, “Go find me a woman”; it’s about insisting on a balanced slate to select the very best talent from. In some cases it also means you have to push someone to recognise that they’re ready for a promotion – it’s that classic story of women hesitating if they only have 80% of the requisite skills, while men think “I’ll have a go” if they’ve only 50% of what’s needed. As a leader, it’s your job to do some coaching. 

You also have to take a good look at your environment and whether it’s going to attract female candidates. I never start any leadership meetings before 10am or after 4pm, because that allows both women and men who have to do the school run to participate. And that whole thing about sending emails at 7 o’clock at night and expecting a reply straight away — we just don’t do that.

Such small tweaks can have a massive impact on a career, because a manager who’s aware that the leadership team meets at 8am might be put off applying because she knows she has to take the kids to school, and that taking that bigger job will mean compromising her work/life balance. Once you’ve created that sort of environment you have to find a way of getting it across in job descriptions and your communication with recruiters.

Management Today recently named you one of its top Agents of Change for 2017. Is public recognition important for furthering your cause to create more gender balance at BP?

While it’s very flattering and humbling to be selected, it would be a mistake for anyone to think that you need to appear on a list in order to have permission to make a difference. For me, gender diversity is simply a matter of better balance equalling better business.

About five years ago I was put in charge of a function where I could make choices about who was hired, and it really was as simple as making a decision that I would push and try to achieve an equal male/female split in my leadership team, or die trying. We’ve done okay – we’re currently at around 60/40, so there’s still work to do. Wherever you are in your career, you can make a difference: make a choice, commit to it, and then make it happen.

The financial benefits to gender diversity in business are well documented. What personal benefits have you discovered through developing a more equal split in your team?

Ed Alford at a conferenceHaving a gender diverse team undoubtedly enables me to have broader thinking and makes me better at my job. I’m blessed to have a lot of great male and female leaders, and all that diversity of thought enables me to think more broadly. If there’s one thing I’ve learned it’s that you’re always more successful when you have people around you who are not like you. 

Having gender diverse teams absolutely makes work more fun too. Everyone has a different brain and a different sense of humour, regardless of gender, and so mixing things up more creates a lot more enjoyment in the working environment, and more fun when you’re pulling together to solve a problem. It’s also helpful if you can laugh at the gender differences — we used to joke as a team about how it took us longer to arrive at collective decisions because of all the competing opinions, but it was done in the knowledge that we’d created a better, more balanced outlook.

Progress is still slow in terms of strengthening the female talent pipeline in many industries. What will the next generation need to do to speed up the transition to workplace gender parity?

Back when I was doing my aeronautical engineering degree, there were two girls in my class of 80. When I started working in 1992, I think the male/female split in that business was about 80/20. Today I work with FDM, title partner of the everywoman in Technology Awards, to ensure the young talent coming into BP is 50/50.

It falls to us senior leaders to ensure that we’re changing and creating an environment that means the next generation of leaders won’t see issues around a balanced workforce, and will just naturally seek to create diverse and inclusive teams. If you’re wondering why you don’t have any women in your senior team today, go back to grass roots and start fixing the problem there — that’s what changes the pipeline for tomorrow.