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Our email exchanges with Baroness O’Cathain (updated 22.11.12)

November 18, 2012

[Note: this post was updated 22.11.12 with the content of another exchange of emails with the lady writing on behalf of Baroness O'Cathain.]

On 10 November we put up a post about the final report of the House of Lords inquiry on ‘Women on Boards’. We provided a written submission to the inquiry, which was duly published, although our requests to give oral evidence to the select committee were denied. All of the many ‘witnesses’ who gave oral evidence were proponents of ‘improved’ gender diversity on boards, and many were professionally engaged in the initiative. From the final report’s Summary, p4:

The report begins by stressing the benefits that come from a gender-balanced board. A more balanced board will be able to tap into the wealth of available talent in the labour market, provide a broader spectrum of ideas, better reflect a company’s customer base and improve corporate governance. We did not, however, find proven the argument that there is a causal link between more gender diversity on boards and stronger financial performance…

On p12 of the report we come to the following assertion:

Some studies point to the fact that greater diversity, particularly of gender, can have a positive effect on corporate performance.

‘Some studies’ refers, of course, to studies seeking to misrepresent correlation as causation. The report’s cited sources for this remarkable (and, of course, utterly erroneous) statement are the following:

IMA, Fawcett Society, An Inspirational Journey, Professor Sylvia Walby, Aviva, Arlene McCarthy MEP, Mary Honeyball MEP, NEST, European Commission, Q55 (Lord Davies of Abersoch), Q48 (Jonathan Rees, GEO), Q113 (Joanne Segars, NAPF), Q246 (Helena Morrissey), Q298 (Jo Swinson MP)

So, the ‘usual suspects’ then. We’ve challenged many of these organisations and individuals to cite even one robust study showing the ‘positive effect on corporate performance’, and collectively they’ve supplied nothing. On p13 of the report there’s an extraordinary statement:

It should be stressed that we reject any suggestion that improved diversity would be to the detriment of company performance, as was argued in some submissions we received.

We were, to put it mildly, astonished by this casual dismissal of the robust evidence we’d submitted, and we wanted to learn the grounds – if any, other than ideological – on which the select committee had reached this conclusion. I duly emailed Baroness O’Cathain, chair of the committee, with the following, after pointing her to our critique of the report, and the particular statement we were querying. I copied the email to a number of the other peers on the committee.

The (written) ‘submissions’ cited here were from ourselves, Michael Klein and Ray Russell. Both we and Michael Klein (now this campaign’s Research Director) cited two studies which show a negative impact of ‘improved’ gender diversity in boardrooms (‘GDITB’) on corporate performance, the Ahern/Dittmar study and the Deutsche Bundesbank study. The committee is, therefore, implicitly rejecting not our ‘suggestion’, but these studies. We might reasonably ask, on what grounds is the committee rejecting them?

Last Tuesday, 13 November, I received an email from a lady clerk, with the following:

Baroness O’Cathain has asked me to reply on her behalf to your email. In its deliberations, the committee had recourse to a significant range of written and oral evidence, which it carefully considered in coming to its conclusions. This involved discussion of each written evidence submission as well as carefully considered questioning of oral witnesses.

As you have noted, while the committee concluded that there was no causal connection between increased female representation and improved financial performance of businesses, we acknowledged the existence of various studies that argued contrary to this viewpoint. While the committee scrutinised evidence which argued for both a positive and negative causal connection, it did not find either to be robust enough to be relied upon in the report.

Later the same day, I replied to the lady as follows:

Many thanks for your response, but I regret it misses a key point.

The committee was right to reject the studies which are said to demonstrate a positive causal link, because those studies have been shown to be flawed, as Susan Vinnicombe’s position on the matter implies. They were simply ‘snapshots’ which have been misrepresented as implying causation from correlation.

Conversely, the studies this campaign and Michael Klein put forward in our written evidence to the inquiry – the Ahern/Dittmar and Deutsche Bundesbank studies – were, conversely, longitudinal studies, the ‘gold standard’ in the social sciences. We recently drew up a short summary of the evidence for the ‘negative link’, please see attached. The two studies in question are the first and last of the five studies shown, and all five are longitudinal studies. We’ve invited challenges to these studies from many proponents of ‘improved’ gender diversity on boards, and not a single challenge has ever been received.

Our key question to Baroness O’Cathain was, therefore, this – on what grounds did the committee reject the Ahern/Dittmar and Deutsche Bundesbank studies? We ask again for an answer to this perfectly simple question. We’re genuinely baffled by the rejection of the studies, hence our assumption they’ve been rejected because they don’t accord with, or support:

- the government’s policy and legislation directions (and that of the preceding Labour administration, come to that)

- the pro-gender diversity ideologies of all the people who gave oral evidence to the inquiry

To present the ‘negative link’ studies as being even remotely comparable to the ‘positive link’ studies in robustness terms is simply wrong.

On 21 November I received the following email:

Thank-you for your email. Lady O’Cathain has asked me to reply on her behalf. She thanks you for contributing to the body of evidence for this inquiry. The inquiry has now been completed, and the published report represents the agreed view of the Committee on the subject, reached after extensive deliberation on the many submissions received.

I replied with the following:

Thanks <name omitted>. I accept the report is now finished, but I’m simply asking for the basis  on which the scientific studies we cited were rejected as evidence. In the absence of a reply, I am forced to conclude that the Committee had no rational basis for the rejection, it was literally an irrational (and obviously ideological) rejection, and I’ll put up a post to that effect unless I hear from you by midday tomorrow.

Not having had a response by the deadline, I think we can now accept the inevitable conclusion, that the rejection of our evidence was irrational. Let’s hope that the final report which will follow the House of Commons inquiry into ‘Women in the Workplace’ will treat our evidence with the seriousness it deserves.

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