Nicholas Barnett: Man in the Mirror

by Iain Hopkins21 Jul 2014
Nicholar BarnettNicholas Barnett, CEO, Insync Surveys, went from stereotypical sceptic to passionate diversity campaigner. He shares his story with HR Director

As a well-educated, middle class white male who showed early potential, I was given many high-value and special learning opportunities in the early stages of my career. After three years at KPMG and having achieved my chartered accounting qualification, I was transferred to Taiwan for 18 months to manage KPMG’s (then Peat Marwick) office in Taipei in January, 1980. The office had around 60 employees, many of whom were two and almost three times my age. Despite my relative inexperience and being only 22 years old, I was treated with the utmost respect by our employees, clients and others. It was a lot of fun and a fabulous learning experience.

On returning to Australia, I worked for a further 18 months with two of Australia’s best known and respected insolvency practitioners, Jim Poulton and David Crawford, in KPMG’s insolvency division. I was encouraged and sponsored through the fi rm from one great opportunity to the next. I was one of the youngest people ever to be admitted to the partnership of KPMG at the age of 28 and was the youngest to retire two years later at the age of 30.

Throughout my career, I’ve been introduced to many business and community leaders and became a member of many great sporting and other clubs where lots of people just like me frequented. I’ve been asked to take on many leadership positions during my life and have found it quite natural to do so.

I have also had the added benefit of being tall at six feet and three inches. In the US, males who are over six feet two inches tall are over three times more likely to become CEOs than shorter males.

Today I am a husband, father and grandfather. I sit on a number of boards, have headed up companies and have written two books. I often wonder if I didn’t fit the ‘leadership mould’ quite so well, where might I find myself?

As I began to reflect upon my 35-year career, I came to realise that my quick rise through the ranks was due, at least in part, to the fact that I have been given so many opportunities, so much support and had so many obstacles removed for me by others. It began to occur to me that those same special opportunities and support have been given to very few women, those that aren’t white Anglo-Saxons and people with a disability.

It has also occurred to me that I have spent most of my time working with people just like me. I have always felt part of the ‘in-crowd’ and have never been discriminated against. I have begun to realise that very few non-white women or people with a disability would say they feel part of the in-crowd and have never felt discriminated against.

Senior women point out that well-educated, white, middle class men are given respect as soon as they walk in the door. Such men are assumed to deserve respect until they prove otherwise. Women of a similar status are more likely to need to earn the respect before it is given. Many women tell of their experiences in visiting clients who would regularly defer to their more junior male colleague, assuming that he is in charge.

I regularly encourage my male colleagues to refl ect on their careers in the same way I have in the hope that they might also see the light – in the way I have.

Recently I heard a mum telling her young son of age three or four: “Now son, you’re the man of the house, so make sure you look after your sister”. We’ve been telling our boys and girls for years that the boys are the boss and they’ve got to look after the girls. And when our boys show any sign of weakness, we tell them not to be a ‘girl’!

Our gender schema, which sets our perceptions as to what it means to be a boy or a girl, is learnt so early on and is reinforced so often, including in our daily media, that it simply becomes unconscious and the natural order of things.

Unfortunately, this means that legitimate leadership decisions are routinely biased in favour of men against women, against non-Anglo-Saxons, against those with a disability and even against shorter people. When choosing a leader or a person for promotion, numerous research studies have shown that most men and women who look at exactly the same resume will select the one with Jack’s name more often than the one with Jill’s name. The men are considered to be more competent, hireable and have greater leadership ability than the identical female candidates.

Harvard’s Implicit Association Test has also shown that the majority of the population has an unconscious bias linking men to careers and women to family. It also shows minimal difference in unconscious bias by demographic – women have the same bias as men and younger women are just as biased as older women.

My antenna in relation to unconscious bias is now very sensitive, but for most of my life, I couldn’t see or recount a single case of unconscious bias. I now see examples every day that I know most of my male colleagues and friends don’t see. Imagine for a moment a CEO and his leadership team sitting around a large boardroom table with the only female team member at the other end of the table. The CEO has a conference phone in front of him with a ‘post it’ note with a phone number on it of someone they need to join the meeting. He asks the female leadership team member to dial the number. After a moment of hesitation, she dutifully gets out of her chair, goes to the other end of the room and dials the number. Neither the CEO nor other men noticed the inappropriateness and unconscious bias displayed by that request. That woman wishes she had thought quicker and said something like, “Your CFO is beside you, he’s good with numbers, why not let him dial the number?”

The cumulative impact of unconscious bias and prejudice over the career of employees in favour of the dominant group (white Anglo-Saxon, well educated men) is significant. Non-dominant groups have to manoeuvre around or over obstacles throughout their careers that are automatically removed for the dominant group. The non-dominant groups are given much less support and encouragement and have to climb difficult terrain, whereas the dominant group are encouraged and supported as they take the escalator to the top.

Having read much of the research on this topic and having watched unconscious bias play out in many different ways, it is now clear to me that, when it comes to positions of leadership, the playing field has been tilted in favour of white men for centuries.

I have arranged unconscious bias training in our organisation and I take every opportunity to talk on this topic, particularly to men, including in public forums and in survey and consulting assignments for clients. This includes telling my story where appropriate. These actions are making a positive difference in our organisation and in others.


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