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Getting women on board

February 15, 2011

The previous UK government loved reviews and inquiries – and the new one is little different. From corporate governance, to pensions, to the structure of banks, those in Westminster relish a report, preferably one packed full of important-sounding recommendations but which compel no one to do anything. That’s because, very often, the problem being tackled is not one that can be easily or neatly solved with legislation or a slap on the wrist.

The government’s review into female representation on the boards of big business is a case in point. The panel, led by former trade minister Mervyn Davies, met on Monday to discuss final recommendations for increasing the number of female board directors, with quotas mooted as one option. Its report is due out soon. But quotas are highly unlikely – for the simple reason that business does not like them.

“…boards and shareholders should be able to form a board based on the merits of an individual and the requirements of the company,” the Institute of Directors said in its submission to the Davies review. “Far from increasing the legitimacy of boards, gender quotas would undermine the credibility of female board members. Female directors would be tainted with the suspicion that they had been appointed in order to fulfil regulatory requirements, not on the basis of merit.”

Of course, no company or organisation should employ an individual who is patently less qualified or able than another simply because of their gender, or the colour of their skin. But clearly much more does need to be done to address homogenity at the top of British business (and countless other fields, not least politics).

So, here are some thoughts about how change can be wrought, and about why the IoD submission itself shows where some of the biggest problems lie:

- Diversity of experience
Those who seek to explain why there are so few women on British boards often argue that the pool of suitably qualified and experienced candidates is very small. But that depends on what you mean by experience and expertise. The boards of the banks that have fallen spectacularly from grace in the past couple of years were ostensibly packed with people who boasted years of experience. Yet few – if any – piped up to rein in reckless lending practices or overly ambitious mergers and acquisitions.

What boards need is diversity of experience, not homogeneity. A herd mentality is the least useful attitude of a strong board. Yes, expertise is necessary – but equally crucial is the ability to question management decisions and strategy – and to look at problems from different angles. A board whose directors have diverse experience and backgrounds encourages this.

- Equitable work arrangements
There is a problem that the higher up a corporate structure you go, the fewer women you see – but that’s true not just in the world of British business, but also politics, the judiciary, and countless other industries. Female directors take up just 135 of the 1,076 directorships on boards of FTSE 100 companies in Britain, according to a report by Cranfield School of Management.

Strikingly, the Institute of Directors explains this, in part, by arguing that women “appear to experience, on average, more work-family conflict than men” and recommends that “in seeking to fulfil their ambitions, achievement-oriented female entrepreneurs and executives should regard the design of a work-family management strategy as a strategic business decision”.

The phrasing of those sentences should tell you everything you need to know about why women often struggle to reach the upper tiers in business or other sectors. It suggests – at some level – that women themselves are the problem. ‘You don’t like the fact you can’t get to your kid’s school play? Well, plan better’. Talented women drop out of the senior ranks because of attitudes like these. Until we get to a stage when future IoD submissions suggest that achievement-oriented business leaders of ANY gender feel empowered to make positive decisions about how they want to balance life, work and career, then the needle won’t move much. Companies need to create environments where employees feel they are being treated equally – rather than as exceptions – and be ready to flex operations to suit the talents of their most able staff.

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At CoSkill (a strategy consultancy in London), we specialise in business, consumer and digital technology strategy for a range of clients, including a large number of FTSE 100 companies. In a sector (consulting) dominated by men, we’re extremely proud of our diversity:

- 60% of our main, core team of consultants, are female
- 50% of our board Directors are female
- 40% of our investors / shareholders are female

We’ll soon publish our thoughts on commercial gender discrimination at http://coskill.com/insights – get in touch for a free copy of the white paper.

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