I recently attended a panel discussion on Women on Boards organised by Pinsent Masons in London. The discussion focused on the implications of the Davies Report of 2011 that established there was a long way to go to achieve gender equality on boards – and that the resulting lack of diversity has led to groupthink and poor decisions.
In 2010 women made only 12.5% of board membership in the UK – a very low percentage. A key debate is whether the government should introduce quotas to achieve greater gender diversity on boards. This was the very successful approach taken by the Norwegian government which in 2002 set a deadline of July 2005 for private listed companies to increase the proportion of women to 40% – full compliance being achieved by 2009.
The panel discussion was continued over drinks and canapés and swung backwards and forwards about the pros and cons of quotas.
1. Advantages of quotas for women on boards
Clear and achievable targets
Focus efforts and highlight issues
Rapid progress achievable
2. Disadvantages of quotas for women on boards
May result in best candidate not being selected
Can undermine women’s feelings of self-worth
Can undermine respect for women on the board
3. The pipeline of senior women for boardrooms
One of the problems often cited in securing women onto boards is the lack of a pipeline of senior women with the type of leadership and management experience that counts in the selection process. More women than men graduate from university, yet fewer women than men make it to the top of the career ladder. Is it something in the female psyche that inhibits their career? Is it due to different values with respect to work/life balance? Or is it due to the predominance of men ‘at the top’ promoting in their own image? Or maybe it is even simpler than that – women just don’t even think about the possibility of putting themselves forward for board positions?
4. Davies recommendations
The Davies report does not recommend the use of quotas in the first instance but suggests that all Chairmen of FTSE 350 companies should set targets for the percentage of women on their boards by 2013 and 2015, as well as a more systematic annual disclosure of the number of women on the board, in senior executive positions and as employees in the whole organisation.
5. How can women help themselves to get on boards?
So what should women do to address these issues? Some of the ideas that came up from the panel and the discussions afterwards were as follows
- Build a network and make your interest in a board position known to your senior contacts in companies
- Send your CV to the executive search companies explaining the benefits you can offer a board in terms of different perspectives and a more challenging approach to the status quo
- Start with the public sector board appointments that are easier to secure and build your CV
6. Quotas or not?
I started off the evening with the view that quotas should not be necessary and would be demeaning for women. After all, good performance and the right attributes should be enough, shouldn’t they? But by the time I was collecting my coat to go home I had veered towards the view that positive action really must be taken – there is too much ‘establishment’ on boards to enable women to achieve the representation that they deserve.
What are your views?