In pursuit of perspectiveHistorically, there have always been far fewer women than men in boardrooms, and a lot of hand-wringing whenever new statistics were published, but no real action. But, perhaps in the wake of the financial crisis, the penny seems to have dropped. Companies and commentators alike seem to agree that women in boardrooms are not just important for meeting diversity targets, but vital for the well-being of companies and business more generally. And with that recognition has come real action to increase diversity on boards, including the 30% Club and the Women’s Directorship Programme.

Programmes for action

The 30% Club was launched in 2010 with the aim of getting 30% of women on FTSE 100 boards by 2015. From a starting point of just 12.6%, that figure is now 22.2%, so good progress is being made. What’s different from previous initiatives is that the 30% Club is not just a lobby group, but is taking real action. Some of it is about raising awareness, but there’s also plenty going on to make women more ‘board-ready’, an issue which is often cited as part of the problem. For example, the 30% Club now sponsors three fully-funded places on Executive MBA courses at London Business School, Oxford Said Business School and, for the second year running, Henley Business School. This is part of the Club’s Balancing the Pyramid initiative, which aims to increase gender balance at all organisational levels.

The Women’s Directorship Programme is run by the business school at Hong Kong University. It is the first certificated, cross-industry, international programme specifically for women that aims to create board preparedness in its participants. As Kirti Lad, of Harvey Nash Executive Search noted, women have identified lack of confidence, lack of specific skills and shortage of the right professional network as barriers to joining a board. This course aims to provide all those things. It is led by respected academics, but also includes business leaders as guest speakers, which one of its part participants rated as the most useful aspect, alongside her new network of contacts.

Why would you bother?

There are always people to comment that maybe women just don’t want to be on boards, and to ask whether it really matters if companies are all run by men.  But Karl Moore of McGill University Business School suggests that his research shows that women bring a different perspective. He points out, however, that the men running companies now may have different skills from those men and women who are now at more junior levels in those companies, because gender expectations are changing all the time.

Research shows that women tend to be better at collaborating, empathy, and listening, and at evaluating risk more sensibly. Not all women show these skills, of course, just as not all men lack them, but on average, senior women in business tend to be better at them than senior men. And these skills are becoming more important, not less. We’ve noted before that collaboration is expected more often in the workplace. Work is also becoming more stressful, which means that empathy with staff is more important. It’s also important to be able to relate to customers. And the issue of sensible evaluation of risk is one that has been raised many times since the financial crisis. Many commentators have pointed out that too many risks were taken, unchallenged by senior managers, and that perhaps having more women on boards would have prevented some of the worst excesses. Twenty-twenty hindsight is always easy, but it does seem from Professor Moore’s research that this idea may have more than just a grain of truth in it.

A good start

It seems likely that now progress has really started, it will snowball. As more women join boards, and companies see the benefits of their presence, more will probably be appointed, leading to a virtuous circle. Of course it’s not a universal panacea, but more diverse boards should lead to better governance, and that’s something that companies can’t afford to ignore. Both companies and women have a responsibility. Companies need to look more widely for suitable board candidates, and support their junior female executives to develop their skills so that they are ready to join boards. Women need to make sure that they are ‘board-ready’, by developing their skills and their network. There is still some way to go, and it’s fair to say that there is still a shortage of women in executive board positions, rather than non-execs, but it’s a good start.

Image credit: Turn directions by Erik Wilde

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