The absence of women in senior positions – a ‘wicked’ problem

March 4, 2011


Savita Kumra is a senior lecturer at Brunel Business School. The opinions expressed are her own. Thomson Reuters will host a follow-the-sun live blog on March 8, 2011 to mark the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day.

I’m not sure if it’s just me, but I get a feeling of déjà vu every time I see a headline decrying the lack of women on FTSE boards. Most recently, focus has been on the dearth of female non-executive directors on such boards and the solution of choice seems to be a number of organizations springing up to ‘mentor’ women so they are ready and able to take up these positions when the call comes.

Quite why this is seen as the way forward; when the approach has been tried for at least 10 years is not fully explained. What is clear is that the painfully slow progress of women onto FTSE boards is a fact and as Rittel and Webber would put it, a ‘wicked’ problem whose solution is as elusive as its continued presence as an issue is frustrating.

A recently commissioned study shows that of the 1,772 non-executive positions available on FTSE 350 boards; only 204 (11.5 percent) are held by women. Of those who make it, we know from work done at Cranfield School of Management that they are more likely than their male counterparts to have titles, they are more likely to have experience in a greater number of sectors and they are more likely to have greater experience serving on minor boards before breaking into the major leagues of the FTSE.

It is thus evident the bar is set extremely high for women and whilst there is evidence that men recruit in their own image; the women who gain these positions also come with fairly standard, albeit glowing, ‘vanilla’ CV’s.  Indeed as a friend, who is head of diversity in a City based firm astutely commented ‘…even the networks who look at getting women into Director positions are very elitist and will only look at women at VERY senior positions; they are not willing to mentor talented women a little further down the food chain’. So perhaps relying on mentoring, and making progress one woman at a time, may not be the whole answer.

As with many ‘wicked’ problems, perhaps a way to approach its solution is to reframe the problem itself. I attended a seminar a couple of years ago, and an Australian colleague struck me with her novel approach to framing the usual lament; rather than focusing on the lack of women in senior positions; she talked about the problems and challenges apparent in organizations by having a ‘surplus of men’.

Her view was that in order to change prevailing orthodoxy, energy needs to be spent examining the systems and structures evident within organizations which underpin the figures we perennially report and pore over. It will only be action directed at surfacing, challenging and correcting these systemic organizational processes that will lead to a change in leadership and governance structures. As ethicists amongst us would point out; it is not enough to point to just procedures if those procedures do not in their turn produce just outcomes.

Explanations for the gender split at executive and non-executive director level given by the overwhelming majority of males holding these positions are – ‘our processes are fair, there just aren’t the women out there with the right skills and experience’; or the ever popular, ‘it is just a matter of time and women will come through’ – can no longer be accepted without deeper analysis. If processes were truly ‘fair’ then the system would correct itself. The meritorious would be rewarded and talent would be recognized in all its forms.

So what kinds of processes should we be looking at? A broad-range of factors combine to produce the outcomes we observe. The only way to fully appreciate what these are is to work at a deeper level; to attempt to understand and analyze policy as it works in  practice and examine the way in which the same situation or set of circumstances is experienced and reacted to at an individual and group level.

Through such analysis additional insight can be gained and appropriate action determined. Working with women is certainly worthwhile, though beginning at the VERY senior level may be limiting the talent pool unduly.

However, simply working with women is clearly only part of the task; working with everyone in senior organisational positions has to be the way forward; challenging taken for granted assumptions, questioning decision-making frameworks and presenting alternative paradigms is the way to truly achieve a shift in thinking – and I for one look forward to the day when the story is no longer about the gender split at Director level; but rather about what a great job Director’s are doing for their chosen organisations and their gender is irrelevant.

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