RSM International boss Jean Stephens: Take the emotion out of equality and remember the facts – more diverse businesses just do better

 
Hayley Kirton
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Jean Stephens has been the chief executive of accountancy network RSM International since 2006 (Source: Greg Sigston)

Jean Stephens is a woman who is passionate about diversity but, from time to time, she thinks it would be better to suck the emotion out of the often explosive subject and just face the facts: improving diversity in the boardroom could improve profits too.

"Everyone has to embrace the fact that, by having diverse opinions and people around the table with different backgrounds, different cultures, you end up with more in-depth discussions, at least with different views and that leads to, in my opinion, better decisions," Stephens says.

She adds: "The more we can get to the facts of it, as opposed to any kind of emotion, I think is good for everyone."

The figures back her up. A study by Grant Thornton last September discovered that listed companies in UK, US and India which had boards with at least one female member outpaced their all-male counterparts by $430bn (£301.3bn) in 2014.

Meanwhile, a study released in January last year by McKinsey discovered that boards that ranked in the top quartile for gender diversity were 15 per cent more likely to financially outperform their more one-size-fits-all peers.

Thinking long-term

Stephens, who joined the RSM network in 1996 and was promoted to chief executive in 2006, describes herself as a long-time follower of the debate surrounding women on boards.

"We were talking about these issues at [the time I graduated] and when I reflect on that, look at where we are now compared to where we started, my opinion is that the results and the progress that we have made has not been satisfactory," Stephens says.

Although compulsory quotas are often met with controversy, Stephens is an advocate, describing such a measure as "a tool to get to the point that we need to so that then it's not needed any longer".

Stephens also thinks little of the suggestion that introducing a quota would see women being placed in boardroom seats to meet a tick-box requirement rather than on merit. "There's very many talented women," she says. "I think it's people of equal merit and skillset and, if they are equal, then we should lean towards getting that greater diversity at the table."

She also scoffs at the suggestion that the pay gap, for the most part, is driven by malicious intent, instead suggesting that an unconscious bias and a lack of awareness were most likely to be the underlying issues.

"I don’t think people go in and say 'Ok, we're going to pay women less,'" Stephens says. "I don't think that's what's going on."

Two-way street

However, big business isn't the only one with a role to play in improving the representation of women in leadership positions.

"Women need to be clear about what they need with regards to their life," Stephens says. "They need to have that dialogue with employers so they can continue that journey upwards and ask for what they need."

Stephens' own role has given her a chance to witness global diversity at its best, as RSM International operates in more than 120 different countries and is now the sixth-largest accountancy network worldwide. Stephens herself is incredibly well-travelled, having started her career in the United States before picking up an opportunity to work with RSM's then-chief executive in the UK.

"My plan was to be here for two years and then to go back, and then it was three years, then four years," she explains.

Even these days, Stephens is rarely in the same place for very long. She explains that her schedule means that she spends about "70 per cent" of her time travelling and reveals that she will be heading to Saudi Arabia two days after her interview with City A.M., having just come back from Panama the week before.

Space of our own

RSM International is also clearly focused on middle-market clients and Stephens believes that this, combined with a dedication to client service, makes the firm stand out.

"We're not trying to be like anybody else," says Stephens. "We want to be in a space of our own."

As for diversity in the accountancy industry, Stephens admits that there is a problem with retaining women at manager level, despite the split between men and women being reasonably equal at entry level.

Although Stephens says that accountancy profession has done wonders at addressing diversity issues over the years, she adds: "I think we can always do more."

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