Christine Atkinson, head of the Women’s Entrepreneurship Hub at the University of South Wales, explains how supporting diversity in the workforce can benefit the new Cardiff Capital Region...

With the publication of the regional strategic objectives of the Cardiff Capital Region City Deal, developing an inclusive economic environment is central to the ambitions of the project. 

Inclusive employer practices offer a genuine opportunity for business growth. The business environment is at its most unpredictable in recent history, but with this comes opportunity. 

With economic uncertainty and the challenges of Brexit, government and business must respond innovatively and creatively. 

One of the most significant challenges is the ability to recruit and retain people with the required skills to meet demand and pursue growth, as developing innovative organisational and governmental policies to support growth will be critical for employers and start-ups to remain competitive. 

Developing inclusive organisations can positively influence organisational performance. 

As Julian John, of Delsion, a consultancy which helps organisations achieve a diverse and inclusive workforce, highlighted: “The opportunity to embrace inclusion in Wales and be a leading nation in this area is very much real. An approach to inclusion that will attract businesses to be based here, to work with Welsh businesses, to realise the full potential of the talent pool that is here in Wales and provide countless benefits at every level.” 

From the perspective of regional economic growth, such inclusive practices and promotion of entrepreneurial growth can have a positive impact through reduced regional reliance on welfare, increased inward investment and improved household income levels.

However, progress over the past 10 years has been limited. The Equality and Human Rights Commission highlighted in 2016: “In areas of life such as education and employment significant inequalities remain between different groups of people… inequalities by gender, disability, ethnicity and socioeconomic group, identified in our How Fair is Wales? report in 2011, have persisted.” 

There is evidence of a gender pay gap of 17 per cent (a small decrease since 2011 driven by falling male wages), however, the pay gaps experienced by younger workers, ethnic minorities and those from lower socioeconomic groups have all widened over the past five years in Wales. 

In Wales we have seen no marked improvement in the levels of representation in senior roles for women or ethnic minority groups. 
There has been no improvement in terms of income since 2008 in Wales, with poverty rates of 27 per cent for disabled people, and 38 per cent for ethnic minority people.

The aspiration of an inclusive Welsh economy continues to be some way off. 

One of the main explanations for the limited progress highlighted has been ‘human capital’; lower levels of skill or educational attainment. 

However, across Wales, young women now significantly outperform young men at GSCE level. In terms of ethnicity, BME groups largely outperform white pupils, a pattern observed in Wales since 2009, yet improvements in employment outcomes have not emerged. 

Educational advice and choices may continue to be shaped by stereotypical views of the sort of work that women and other groups in the labour market ‘should’ do – breaking these down at an early stage is vital; government, employers and educators all have a role to play in achieving this. 

Clearly, younger people, women, ethnic minority groups and disabled people continue to face barriers to inclusive access to employment. 

These include a lack of flexible working arrangements to balance family commitments or health requirements, limited access to training opportunities, and continued stereotypes and subsequent discrimination that can affect opportunities. 

In relation to SMEs, despite a range of support initiatives female entrepreneurs face challenges. There are generic issues that all business owners face, including accessing finance in order to get the business off the ground and later dealing with ‘growing pains’.  

However, women, disabled people and people in minority groups who are business owners, may also encounter a range of additional challenges.  

The thorny issue of finance involves particular challenges for women. As women and minority groups tend to be clustered at lower levels in organisations or in lower-paid sectors, it can be harder to accumulate savings to invest in their own business. 

However, some women are reluctant to seek external finance or even uncomfortable at the thought of taking out a business loan in case the business fails and affects the future of their children.

Women also comment on how difficult it is to establish credibility as business owners, and as leaders of established businesses moving into growth, with financial institutions, customers, suppliers and even employees.  

Related to this, further common issues for women can be lack of self-confidence, lack of belief in business skills, and later self-doubt in the form of ‘imposter syndrome’. 

Many women decide to start a business with a view to finding a more flexible way to work that will accommodate family and home commitments. 

However, the reverse may well be the case. The demands of a growing business can actually create more pressure for long working hours. 

Similarly, some women, frustrated at their lack of career progression or feeling blocked by ‘the glass ceiling’ in employment, decide to strike out on their own only to find that being seen as ‘carers first, earners second’, gender stereotyping and discrimination, may also impact on their potential as business owners too. 

Significant consideration as to how government can effectively support working women and entrepreneurs, including addressing the significant costs of childcare, is fundamental in encouraging an inclusive economy. 
In summary, as Julian John highlights, while inclusion offers the potential for real growth, there is some way to go before this is realised in Wales. 

“The challenges are engaging and educating employers to be confident in employing disabled people and to realise the contribution that disabled people make within work,” he said.

“What it isn’t, is just providing employability training schemes, 
it’s about an inclusive attitude within the workplace and enlightened organisations. 

“Through our work of supporting employers around diversity and inclusion, we see what employers can achieve. 

“Indeed, I can give you a list of employers that are having phenomenal results through their inclusion practises. 

“The Cardiff Capital Region and the City Deal must benefit from having inclusion within its strategies, or the opportunity to make such a powerful impact will be lost.”