My Biggest Mistake

Anne Watts, 43, is the equal opportunities director of Midland Bank. She is charged with directing the bank's policy of ensuring that recruitment, training, career planning and management development is free of discrimination on grounds of sex, age, marital status, race, colour, religion and ethnic or national origin. An appointee to the Equal Opportunities Commission, she is also a member of the team behind Opportunity 2000, the long-term campaign to increase employment and advancement opportunities for women and achieve a better balance of the sexes in business.

MY BIG mistake was to think I could secure all-round equal opportunity in the short space of two years at National Westminster Bank, where I was Equal Opportunities Manager before joining the Midland.

These were exciting days in the mid-1980s when change was in the air and quite a lot of progress was being made on opportunities for women.

An optimist, I thought I could solve all the problems of discrimination in my two years in the role.

But I came up against traditional attitudes, mostly of white middle-class males who tended to be conservative with a small 'c' and who reflected the stereotype views of much of society.

Instead of patiently and painstakingly tackling the problems, I kept running and hitting brick walls. If I had stopped running and slowed down, perhaps I would have avoided them.

At the end of my stint, I made a presentation to the board on the progress of equal opportunities in the bank, conscious that I hadn't achieved all I had hoped and feeling a sense of failure.

But contrary to my expectations, the board was pleased at the progress that had been made, and one of the directors gave me advice I have not forgotten. 'Slow up,' he said. 'You don't think you can change 10,000 years of discrimination overnight, do you?'

My experience at NatWest taught me that instead of rushing into things, I had to stand back and evaluate what time scale is needed to achieve my goals. Equal opportunities work is in a sense like mountaineering. You think you've reached the top when suddenly you realise there is another mountain range ahead to climb.

I learned, too, that if you want sustained change you have to build allies. I should have focused on people on the way up - the potential managers. I now think more strategically and politically on how I go about my work.

When Kit McMahon came to the Midland Bank, he saw very clearly that developing equal opportunities would be a positive business benefit. And I have the full backing of the Midland board in carrying out the bank's programme.

Not that I had not been given the backing of the board at NatWest - I was, and their equal opportunities programme was progressive for the time. It was just that the targets I set myself were impossible to achieve in the time scale I envisaged. I realise now that it may take my lifetime for equal opportunities to become truly universal in business.

As the Midland booklet Managing In Midland puts it: 'What do we mean by equal opportunities? Very simply, we're talking about good management practice that makes sound business sense.'

And, of course, that's important for all organisations. At the end of the day, having an effective equal opportunities policy is good for business. For people who are enabled to use their full potential are more productive. The only acceptable form of discrimination is on the basis of ability.

A lot of work remains to be done, but victims of discrimination are speaking up. And employers are becoming aware of the real benefits to be gained by implementing equal opportunity policies - and the real costs if they do not.

(Photograph omitted)