Diversity and equal opportunities are no longer buzzwords or optional extras in the workplace: employers can’t afford to ignore them because they affect the bottom line.

Study after study has shown that diverse teams improve financial results. “The higher the percentage of women in top management,” concludes research by Credit Suisse on more than 3,000 global companies, “the greater the excess returns.”

The International Monetary Fund quantifies the benefits: appointing a woman to a senior position “is associated with an 8-13 basis points higher return on assets.” Consultants at McKinsey have found this applies across all industries. Less diverse companies perform less well, while “for every 10 percent improvement in gender diversity, you’d see a 2-4 percent increase in profits.”

However, corporate culture can still be resistant to top-level change. In 2015, 18 of the 350 biggest listed companies in the UK had a female chief executive. By 2018, that had fallen to 15. Meanwhile, a quarter of the companies had no women in senior management. This equates to missing out on pre-tax income of £5 billion, researchers calculate, because “profit margins are almost double in companies with at least 25 percent females on their Executive Committee compared to those with none.”

The UK government has set companies a target to fill a third of leadership roles with women by 2020. Financial bureaucrats say unequivocally: “A balanced workforce is good for business – it is good for customers, for profitability and workplace culture, and is increasingly attractive for investors.”

In response, 273 companies have signed the Women in Finance Charter, committing to diversity targets, and making a senior executive responsible for delivery. More than a quarter of these have pledged to exceed the guidelines, pursuing gender equality in management positions by 2021.

Commendable as this is, there is more to diversity than hiring and promoting women, particularly if many of them come from the same privileged backgrounds as men. “A group of similar people tends to think in similar ways, reach similar conclusions, and have similar blind spots,” warns Ajay Banga, the Indian-born CEO of Mastercard.

A broader spectrum of representation is important, interpreting diversity in terms of ethnicity, sexuality, life experience and personal perspectives. “Our markets are more diverse,” says Janina Kugel, the head of Human Resources at Siemens, “so we need to have people from different backgrounds expressing different opinions.”

This is essential for creative innovation, because “Diversity Makes Us Smarter,” to quote from a headline in Scientific American. “It encourages the search for novel information and perspectives,” writes the article’s author, “leading to better decision making and problem solving.”

More diverse companies can attract, develop and retain a broader talent pool. This allows them to serve niche markets with a better understanding of their customers. It also improves their image, staff satisfaction and net income. According to research by McKinsey, companies in the top quartile for ethnic and cultural diversity on executive teams were “33 percent more likely to have industry-leading profitability.”

There are nonetheless obstacles to greater diversity, starting in childhood. These include unequal access to educational opportunities and the detrimental impact of social and economic disadvantage and discrimination. There are also structural biases that make it harder to get hired and promoted, which corporate culture reinforces. A lack of successful role models, sponsors and mentors can stop people trying.

“While organisations argue the talent pool is just too small,” notes Mehud Patel, the CEO of Hired, “the real issue may be that the pipeline itself is leaky.” In other words, employers have to change to be able to accommodate diverse staff. To quote Brenda Trenowden, who chairs the influential 30% Club: “You can have as many diversity initiatives as you like and recruit lots of diverse candidates, but without a truly inclusive culture, none of it sticks.”

Equality Group works with companies to shape lasting change. This has three main components: a visionary and inclusive culture; underlying policies that help to sustain it; and processes for fair and transparent recruitment and professional development.

Equality Consultancy begins with an audit to monitor performance, since “you can’t manage what you don’t measure,” says Ellen Pao, the CEO of Project Include. When executives lead by example, holding companies accountable with meaningful targets, cultures change. Otherwise, the likelier outcome is superficial tokenism.

Policies speak louder than words. To nurture diversity, they need to do more than prevent discrimination by appealing to staff from a range of backgrounds. Helpful measures might include flexible working hours and parenting leave, or the provision of pastoral care, mentoring and coaching, and data on pay gaps. There is no simple formula. Much depends on the business, as well as the talent it aims to attract.

Equality Search matches corporate requirements with those of a pool of exceptional candidates. This network is replenished via proactive headhunting of Senior Advisors, Non-Executive Directors, C-Suite management and Investors across the finance, tech and social impact sectors. It also draws on connections to peers such as BroadMinded, Women in Tech, Diversity Partners, Rare Recruitment, SEO London and PyLadies.

“There should be an expectation in business that the selection process is based entirely on merit,” says Sir Philip Hampton, whose 2016 report on corporate diversity led to UK targets. “Given the disproportionate number of men to women in senior roles, businesses should question the soundness of their meritocracies.”

There’s still a long way to go, agrees Noreen Doyle, who chairs the British Bankers’ Association. “We’ll be considered equal,” she quips, “when equally incompetent women get the same opportunity as incompetent men.”

The abundant case for equality leading to greater financial and business success, alongside the huge disparity that currently exists at many organisations, is why Equality Group exists and why (as a team of competent women) we are determined to see the landscape change.