Hephzi Pemberton: The woman boosting equality and diversity one hire at a time

When it comes to equality and diversity in business, it’s far easier to talk the talk than walk the walk. 

For better or worse, the terms have become buzzwords to be dropped into conversations, mentioned in meetings, and applied liberally to Twitter exchanges. But for those on the sharp end, they’re less of a platitude and more of an opportunity for real change. It’s a chance to be represented within industries, to be paid fairly and treated equally. In other words, much more than just lip service.

One person who is doing more in the name of diversity and equality in business than just talking about them is Hephzi Pemberton, founder of The Equality Group. A consultancy and recruitment firm set up in 2018, The Equality Group helps businesses in the finance and tech industries correct their imbalances and inequalities. Pemberton was fed up with seeing diversity and equality tacked on to the end of job adverts so she decided to try and change things from the inside.

Hephzi Pemberton

The Equality Group helps businesses diversify their teams and, crucially, advises them on creating inclusive environments. Pemberton’s company deliberately focuses on leadership positions by addressing the underrepresentation of women in senior roles and the lack of diversity in top end talent. In the first year alone, Pemberton tells me her company has “consulted with four large clients, overhauled their recruitment process, their people management and performance development to make them much more diversity conscious and focused.”

As well as putting effective systems in place to support diversity and equality, Pemberton’s work also involves filling roles. She says, “We have placed five people so far, three of those are women, one is from an ethnic minority background and the other is more of a social mobility [hire]. We're working on five retained mandates for other roles now, all from partner down to VP level.”

The inspiration for The Equality Group, she tells me, “really came from having worked in people and talent for number of years. [I’d] seen how diversity was often added on to a search rather than the heart of it. I wanted to build a business that had that mission at the centre of what we did, [that] would align with clients and firms that were willing to go the extra mile to find more diverse talent and to integrate them into the culture.”

For Pemberton, diversity and equality within companies is crucial, not simply because it’s fair but because it also makes good business sense. It might not seem the most uplifting motivation to those of us with a personal stake in diversity, but it should at least give those with hiring power something to think about.

“Diverse teams actually lead to bottom line business results, and also greater levels of innovation, creativity, and resilience”, says Pemberton. “And I think getting more representative leadership, whether that's representative of society or representative of the client base, is important. Winning organisations will do this and will do well, and we'll see the benefits play out.”

The Equality Group

Pemberton’s focus on the finance and tech industries comes from her own experience as an investment banker and being aware that these are two of the industries with the most work to do. She says, “They're extremely important industries to our economy and yet the numbers are pretty depressing when you look at senior leadership and how diverse it is.”

For companies looking to make practical steps towards improving representation of women and ethnic minority groups in senior roles, Pemberton says it’s key for leadership teams to set a cultural change in motion. “You need to have the senior leadership actually [buy] into this, otherwise, nothing's going to change,” she explains. “This is not just an HR issue this is about leadership, people, and culture. So make sure management are really on board and communicate widely with an organisation about why this matters, what the benefits are, and how they're going to go about achieving this.”

It’s crucial for companies to be aware of the scale of their equality and diversity problems. “Data is very important. I'm always surprised by the number of firms – very data driven firms as well – not collecting or measuring this data,” Pemberton says, explaining that this can help companies track their success too. “[Without the data] you don't actually know if anything's really changing or if any of the initiatives that you're putting in place are having an effect. So [it’s] extremely important.”

A third consideration is making sure your company is attractive to candidates who may not have traditionally been represented there previously. It’s important to make sure that, once hired, they feel included. “I think there's a large piece of work [to do] around of relationships and networks,” Pemberton notes. “That's mentoring, sponsorship, role models, the visibility of the diversity that you might have within the organisation or that you want to bring into it.”

In December 2018, The Financial Times published disheartening research that suggested, despite the 2017 controversy, that the UK gender pay gap had widened. However, Pemberton thinks that the statistics could actually be cause for optimism.

“I think people are being more honest about their data. I think people didn't do a thorough enough job to begin with and then have realised that it’s actually wider than originally thought,” she explains. “It could be good news in a way, because people are being more thorough and more honest, so we actually know where we're working from at this point.”

As the pay gap widens, the number of women at the top of businesses shrinks. But Pemberton has practical ideas for what businesses can do to effect change. “The most economically incentivised positions have so few women [in them] because they're just not being pulled up through the organisation sufficiently,” she comments. “A lot of the time organisations are so short sighted about making the career work for a woman over the long term. We do need to provide for things like properly equal maternity and paternity leave everywhere.”

As well as her day job at The Equality Group, Pemberton is an investor in several female founded companies. She explains that she deliberately seeks to support diverse and inclusive businesses when investing. “Over time, I realised that I was generating this quite interesting network of underrepresented founders so I wanted to bring other investors around those. But I also wanted to specifically be putting my money into groups of founders that weren't necessarily getting visibility from the more traditional capital pools.”

With the power that financial backing brings, Pemberton is able to influence change within these businesses too. “I was looking for something [to invest in] within the black hair care market. And I came across a particularly good opportunity, with two male founders but targeting female hair care. So I said I would only invest if they hired a female co-founder, which [The Equality Group] actually ended up doing for them.”

As part of her work at The Equality Group, Pemberton doesn’t just advise the companies she works with to look at data, she also funds the research. Recently the company published a study that found that only two per cent of UK business directors are from an ethnic minority background. Pemberton is white and explains that her focus on diversity and inclusion are born of a frustration with how “conversations can get stuck on gender” alone.

She explains, “It's limiting the discussion around diversity which is why I wanted to do some specific research on more ethnic minority representation. Women of colour are marginalised but the gender conversations often are just about white women.” Analysing the data also provides clues on how to move forward. “We saw that actually there has been great progress in terms of education and support that [BAME individuals] get within communities, but then it breaks down when they hit the world of work.”

From there Pemberton says her role is “encouraging folks to take a proactive approach to that and seeing that there's this incredible pool of talent”.

As one of those BAME professionals I’m intrigued by Pemberton’s commitment to diversity inclusion, despite being a white woman who has never been directly affected by their absence. She tells me how an early awareness of the privileges afforded by the colour of her skin has informed her work. “I grew up in the Congo so I was able to recognise my white privilege really early on in life. I'm constantly thinking about that – the benefits of the privilege that I and others have and then how you can open that up to other people. There is a huge benefit when you do that and when you create more inclusivity.”

She adds, “There are many other extremely talented and gifted people that just don't have the same level of access that I do, and I care about creating that access and those opportunities.”

This article is part of Virgin's International Women's Day series

This is a guest blog and may not represent the views of Virgin.com. Please see virgin.com/terms for more details.

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