Only once in my career have I, to my knowledge, been the victim of sexual discrimination. I was working for a property newspaper when the editor was unable to keep an appointment with a rather snooty firm of estate agents. Could he send me instead, he asked? The response was categorical: a stand-in would be acceptable, but not a female one.
The editor's reaction was suitably supportive: the estate agents would have to tell their story elsewhere. With some satisfaction, I can now report that the firm no longer exists, and that, since that episode, I have not felt myself to be unfairly treated because of being a woman.
Yet such is the flow of statistics and anecdotal evidence on the subject that I suspect I have either been extremely lucky or blinkered. Discrimination need not be overt; it can be insidious. And it is surely not to the benefit of business. Apart from the damage inflicted on a company if a discrimination case hits the courts and the headlines, businesses that do not operate equal opportunity employment policies really do put themselves at a disadvantage.
When the group CEO of BP visits an international conference on 'Women in Leadership' to deliver a speech on just these lines, managers everywhere should take note. Lord Browne of Madingley had a simple explanation as to why BP was an advocate of diversity in its employment policies: to improve the competitive position of his company. Technologies can be bought; what he needs is the talent to implement them. If some potentially very talented people are being screened out of the recruitment pool, then it is to BP's disadvantage.
Coincidentally, almost as Lord Browne was making his speech in Berlin, the City was hearing allegations that a firm of stockbrokers had treated a female analyst unfairly. It is the latest in a string of cases which give the impression that some in the Square Mile have awoken late to the fact that old prejudices can lead to an early death for a business.
But prejudices built up over generations are not removed overnight. There may be people in management whose views are coloured by inherited ideas about the roles of women, the reliability of the Irish or other preconceptions. They need to be taught to look at recruits with an open mind.
Sir John Browne pointed out that in 1999, of the top 40 executives running BP, none was a woman. Of the top 450 people, only 8% were women. And women were not the only poorly represented group in the business: for an international company such as this, having only 9% of the top team drawn from countries other than the US or the UK was symptomatic of a recruitment and promotion system that favoured Anglo-Saxon males.
BP took the first step of realising that this might not be to the benefit of the business. It then took several steps to bring about change. The first was to bring in consultants to examine the top team and independently analyse its strengths and weaknesses. Two days of questions and interviews must have been unnerving for some, but it gave BP the crucial information it needed about its most vital ammunition: its staff. And although the consultants backed up many of BP's judgments, Sir John relates that the verdicts on some individuals came as a surprise.
'That made us realise in a very practical way that merit is a subjective judgment and that cross-checks would continue to be necessary to demonstrate that merit meant something more than conformity to one particular set of standards.'
So BP consciously opened up its recruitment, insisting that every selection panel be 'diverse'. The next step the company took is difficult for any organisation - and perhaps an oil giant as much as any. BP decided it had to rid the business of the 'golf-club culture' that can make women and minorities feel ill at ease.
One can only imagine how JR Ewing would have reacted to the suggestion. But BP was so serious about its aims that it instituted equal benefits for partners in same-sex relationships. It also examined ways to provide the work/life balance that people, especially those with children, need. In 1999 a staff survey at BP found that only 40% thought this balance was well managed. Last year, the figure was 65%.
It is unlikely that BP will ever get a 100% score. But in the effort to win and hold on to human capital, the company is confident that it's making progress. And the results are showing where it counts: on the bottom line. Firms that sneer at diversity and see nothing wrong with the golf-club culture should take note.