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Diversity: time for “deeds not words”

Last November the institute staged its biggest ever annual conference, “Internal Audit 2018”, at which 500 internal audit professionals gathered at the QEII conference centre in Westminster to discuss the big issues facing the profession and wider society. We heard from experts in a range of fields – including politicians, business leaders, opinion pollsters, regulators, economists, civic leaders and, perhaps most interestingly, equality campaigners.

This year’s conference coincided with the 100-year anniversary of the passing of the Qualification of Women Act, which legislated for women to become elected as members of Parliament. Any delegates who walked from the conference centre past Big Ben and over Westminster Bridge towards Waterloo Station on the Wednesday evening will have seen the London Eye illuminated in purple, white and green – the signature colours of the suffragette movement. 

We were therefore delighted that on the final day of the conference, the actual day of the centenary, we were joined by the women’s rights campaigner Dr Helen Pankhurst, great-granddaughter of arguably the most famous suffragette of them all, Emmeline Pankhurst. She gave an inspirational speech about why it is crucial to continue the campaign for women’s equality and strive for greater diversity in the workplace. 

You may think that Pankhurst was not the most obvious choice of speaker for a keynote address at an internal audit conference. However, she provided delegates with fascinating insights and provided food for thought about the role of the internal audit profession in ensuring that organisations are paying sufficient attention to equality and diversity. These areas are increasingly being recognised as a key risk area for all organisations. 

The emergence of the #MeToo movement, greater focus on the gender pay gap and increased scrutiny of the composition of boards have all shown clearly that issues of equality, diversity and women’s rights are now firmly on the agenda. Organisations that fail to take diversity and equality seriously do so at their own peril, and are almost certainly putting their reputations at risk. 

However, even more importantly, we now know that failure to take diversity into account adequately can have a negative impact on an organisation’s performance. All the evidence suggests that more diverse, more equal and more inclusive organisations outperform their less equal, less diverse and less inclusive counterparts. Failure to have effective policy and practices governing diversity is therefore likely to be a key risk area. This is why it is one of the key risks highlighted in our recent report “Risk In Focus 2019”. 

When thinking about diversity and the role of internal audit, we should be mindful that the profession and the institute operate in the public interest. It is why we were awarded our chartered status in 2010 and is a fundamental feature of chartered professional bodies. Our role is to help protect the long-term sustainability of organisations by giving assurance to the board and senior management that they are identifying, managing and mitigating their risks effectively. 

Acting to ensure that organisations are taking their obligations on diversity seriously is something that can clearly be defined as in the public interest because it is a key risk not only to the organisation in question, but also to society more generally. So it is important to view diversity through a public interest lens. 

In 2019 the internal audit profession needs to step up and consider how we can take a more proactive approach to ensuring that our organisations deliver on diversity and equality – we must be agents for organisational change. 

As Pankhurst argued in her conference speech, we all have a role to play in speeding up gender parity and helping to ensure organisations are taking diversity, equality and inclusivity seriously, to the benefit of wider society. As Emmeline Pankhurst famously said, it is time for “deeds not words”! 

This article was first published in January 2019.