Amanda breaks barriers to address diversity challenges

THESE are busy days for Amanda Jones – appointed just over a year ago as the Co-op Group&#039s first-ever Head of Diversity. Hers is a role, which is...

THESE are busy days for Amanda Jones – appointed just over a year ago as the Co-op Group&#039s first-ever Head of Diversity.
Hers is a role, which is seen as one of paramount importance in our changing, multi-cultural UK.
Amanda, who hails from Manchester, has a professional background in IT and worked for Barclays for many years.
Before joining the society, she was Head of Diversity at the Royal Bank of Scotland. She admits that the whole concept was at first a bit of a sideline.
"It all came about through the simple fact of being a senior woman in management. At Barclays, I was asked to take diversity issues on, and one of the first grounds was in gender and, to be honest, I wasn&#039t that enthusiastic.
"It was tough enough being a woman and doing my job, but once I realised the potential impact of what I was doing I got quite passionate about it.
"I started out from a legislative perspective thinking about managing operational costs.
"What I realised was that though many women felt they had every chance to make progress within many organisations many companies unintentionally put barriers in place and were not finding the right ways to give them access to training."
Based once again in her home city of Manchester, Amanda is living near Knutsford and delighted to be working for the society.
"It&#039s such a great place to be. Not only is the Group a great commercial operation, it has real values and principles."
Her own creed is a fairly straightforward one of social justice and opportunity for all.
"I believe in fairness for all individuals and that everyone of whatever background should have the same opportunity to engage their talents."
On being appointed, Amanda says her first task was to get a general overview of how the land lay in terms of opportunities for those within her diversity remit.
"One of my first tasks was going out and about, meeting people and getting a sense of what this organisation is about.
"I had a good look around, and saw there were some great things already going on. It was my task to pull together a strategy to bring it all together. That had to be agreed by the Co-op Group executive and board."
According to Amanda, there&#039s a common misnomer that "diversity" is all about artificially bumping up quotas of under-represented groups.
"People often think it&#039s about positive discrimination, but it&#039s not. That doesn&#039t solve the reasons why people don&#039t progress in the first place.
"Diversity is all about things like how we engage all our talent against a changing demographic where we have an ageing, shrinking population.
"The demographic of our customers is also changing and we know that certain groups are disadvantaged. That&#039s why I have drawn up a series of initiatives to support me and give me a mandate in which to operate."
One of these is Respect Works, a major project aiming to ensure that people throughout the Co-op Group treat each other in the appropriate way – and dealing with it when they don&#039t.
"We have done a lot of training at senior level, talking about what it means to treat people in certain ways.
"A lot of it is drama-based, using professional actors. One scenario for example might involve someone from an ethnic background being bullied at work and it&#039s about asking questions and seeing how things can work better, or the reasons why they don&#039t.
"We are also making sure there are points where people can go for help if they are facing these kinds of issues."
Diversity also involves a lot of work around the Disability Discrimination Act, making sure all Co-op premises are properly accessible.
Amanda is also keen to do as much as she can to end the barriers to professional progress imposed by prejudice about age.
"New legislation on age is coming up next year and that&#039s something I very much welcome.
"It&#039s outrageous that people with bags of experience and talent are denied the same kind of opportunities as younger people.
"It shouldn&#039t happen, but we know it does all the time. As a group, we have to make sure we respond positively to that legislation."
Other matters of concern to Amanda include the pension crisis, which means many of us will probably be working way past the official retirement age.
Work/life balance is another issue she feels strongly about.
"I want to look at more flexible working options and that&#039s about recognising that some people may want to work a 21-hour week because they have childcare to sort out.
"Others might want to leave one day at 4pm and another need to stay until 7pm."
Amanda is also developing an "ethnicity plan" to keep the Co-op Group in line with employment benchmarks put in place by Race For Opportunity, an initiative backed by Business In The Community.
"Nationally, our ethnic population is about 7.8 per cent and we are not so far from that in terms of representation. But we can do better."
As she points out, the Co-op is already a fair way down the road of recognising the new challenges represented by multi-cultural Britain.
"In the West Midlands, Funeralcare now caters for a wide range of religious beliefs, not just Christian ones. And there are lots of similar strategies being planned."
So what&#039s the way ahead in terms of diversity for the Co-op Group?
"We don&#039t have to fall back on quotas for shortlists. It&#039s about recognising the demographics of the UK are changing and we need respond to that in positive ways.
"It&#039s about changing our culture so we know how to deal with inappropriate behaviour and racist or any other form of discrimination.
"We have to get people to tune into their behaviour and help them deal with it in the right way. It&#039s also about creating decent role models.
"Basically, diversity is about embracing the fact that everyone is different. Obvious differences are by gender, race, disability or age but there are other differences such as people&#039s sexual orientation, religious or political beliefs and values beneath the surface.
"There are all kinds of things you can do and steps you can take but ultimately we have to do what is right for the society."

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