Equal Pay, childcare and reduced machismo

13 03 2014

There is a lot of debate, though I concede very little action, about the vexed question of how, and indeed whether, we should get more women onto boards.

To be fair, I prefer to frame the debate as a call for greater diversity on boards. In the first instance it is a matter of fairness that different sections of our society are reflected in positions of power in proportions approximately equal to their occurrence in that society. Secondly, it’s about effectiveness; as countless studies have indicated, and company results continue to demonstrate, that a more diverse board is a more effective board.

When it comes to quotas, I am for the introduction of legislation that ensures that boards better reflect the make-up of society. When it comes to gender, therefore, boards ought to approach a 50:50 representation of men:women.

It is clear that movement towards gender balance is happening but what is also clear is that it is a painfully slow process. Since there is agreement on all sides that a move towards gender balance is beneficial and desirable, to rely on this organic change makes little sense. The imposition of quotas will give the system a nudge in the right direction.

If quotas are adopted, what’s the worse that can happen? We may run the risk that a few women are appointed to roles for which they are not the very best candidate in order to fulfil a quota. So what? It is the responsibility of each organisation to ensure that the board recruitment and selection process is robust and, thereby, the appointment will be from a selection of excellent candidates; the first amongst equals. It is disengenuous and a distortion of the process that prevails, to imply that women appointed will be poor. Boards are not going to simply wander onto the street and offered a board role to the first person they see in a skirt in order to fulfill the quota. And after all, are we really saying that there are no men on boards who really ought not to be there?

The more women that sit on boards the more men will get used to seeing them around. The norms will change. For example, in my grandmother’s day, it was rare for women to be seen in pubs. The men went out and the women stayed home. Nowadays it is difficult to imagine that pubs have not always been places where men and women can go. In fairness, men resisted that change too and in my own teenage years there were certain pubs that retained their men only status by the simple expedient of refusing to provide a ladies toilet. People, on the whole, don’t like change. Those who are benefitting from the status quo, men with their pubs and their boardrooms in these instances, are even less likely to propose change. Turkeys, votes and Christmas, and all that.

One argument that I hear often, and one which I’m inclined to have a little sympathy with, is that the women just aren’t there to appoint. While it is true that the pale white men in suits could look harder than simply appoint in their image, the leaky pipeline which allows women to seap out of organisations before they reach the top, does exist. However, knowing that there is a problem shouldn’t we look at why this happens and set out a strategy for fixing it, rather than using it as an excuse for failure? Here’s two reasons for the leakages – childcare and equal pay.

The equal pay act has been on the statute book since 1970 and yet the gender pay gap remains, currently standing at almost 20% To put pounds, shillings and pence on this, a woman in a senior management role will typically earn £10,400 less than a man doing the same job. Setting aside the clear unfairness, unequal pay supports skewed decision making. Take a situation of a relationship where both parties work and one has to give up a position for some reason, having children, relocation etc, the which one gives up work? The logical choice is that it will be the one earning the least. And since men are paid more than women at all levels within companies, they will also have a more lucrative future career. A double whammy of current and ongoing pay gap.

Add to this the biological imperative that it is women who actually bear children and will need some time off work, even if only the 24 hours or so it actually takes to give birth. So why aren’t we more concerned about the provision of childcare? I know that small businesses will say that they cannot afford the cost of provision, and I now from running business childcare and maternity leave/cover are not insignificant costs to businesses, but if we are serious about keeping talented women in the workplace we must find ways to provide adequate childcare. If we did that at a societal, public policy level, free childcare for under 5’s for example, there would be no burden on individual businesses.

There would be a tax burden, of course, but what do we pay taxes for? To provide services for children is certainly one of them. As taxpayers we readily accept that education is free for all between the ages of 5 and 18 so why is an extension of that policy so hard to stomach? And if we retained a greater proportion of talented women in the workplace and made it possible for them to stay in the promotion pipeline they would themselves be tax payers and tax revenues would increase.

I’m aware that this argument is probably simplistic on a national economic level and economists can probably find lots of reasons why this might not work but if we are serious about keeping women in the workplace we need to find ways to make childcare happen.

And finally, we women need to help ourselves. I was at a meeting recently at which women, there to discuss the question of women on boards, instead let the discussion develop into a competition about how many hours they worked, how red eye flights they’d clocked up since the start of the year, how many meetings they’d crammed into the last 24hrs, how they had to be 1x, 3x, 10 times better than any man. Think of the old Monty Python sketch of the Yorkshiremen competing with each other over which had had the most deprived childhood and substitute late nights and air miles for holes in the road and you get the picture.

Stop. Just stop Stop now! Stop trying to out male each other. If the only way to climb the greasy pole is by mimicking the testosterone fuelled way men go about business then even when those women get onto boards they will contribute nothing to diversity. I say this not as a woman who believes in “the divine feminine” and all of that nonsense. I speak as a woman who is able, dedicated and one who has spent most of her working life in traditionally male industries, like biochemicals and engineering. Women, and crucially men too, need to find a sensible work life balance. The more that women perpetuate this idea that they need to follow the male patterns of behaviour the slower will be the speed of change towards genuine diversity on boards.

Women on Boards – from both sides of the boardroom table

7 03 2014

I’ve recently had experience from both sides of the interview table. Firstly I was interviewed for a public appointment and then, as Chair at Glasgow Women’s Library, I was part of the interview panel to recruit new board members.

It’s interesting to reflect from both sides of the table.

1. Process

The first thing I should probably say is that I’m unfamiliar with the public appointments process. It was incredibly helpful to be able to get advice from colleagues at Changing the Chemistry, particularly with respect to competency based interviews, a process that is completely different to executive interviews. For the similarly, uninitiated the best way I can describe the difference is that the competency based interview focusses almost exclusively on things that you have already done in your career, and how you did them, whereas, in my experience, business interviews concentrate on ideas and what you might bring to the organisation going forward. Essentially, the former looks backwards and the latter looks at future potential. In my opinion this tends to suggest that the public appointment process is biaised towards familiarity and a safe pair of hands while the private sector process is more likely to bring out flair and enterprise at interview. The point here is to be aware that not all interviews are the same.

2. Preparation

I used to watch The Apprentice, before it became simply a vehicle for attention seekers and celebrity wanabees. Apart from the general uselessness and lack of business acumen of the vast majority of the contestants throughout the programme, what struck me in particular was the lack of preparation of the candidates that made it as far as the interview stage. Some seemed to have little idea of what Amstrad did. That in and of itself is hardly surprising, as Alan Sugar himself now seems to be more of a TV and social media pundit than businessman, but for those looking for employment to have made such a little attempt to find out about their potential employer is incredible. If I thought about it at all I have always assumed that this lack of preparation was down to the fact that they didn’t really want the job itself and had entered the programme to simply appear on TV but I was genuinely surprised at the lack of preparation from some of those that I interviewed fot the library board.

One of the things I can say for certain is that while being well-prepared will not guarantee that you get the post, being unprepared will guarantee that you do not.

3. Blend

The first thing that the chair of the panel said to me at the start of my interview was along the lines of, “We have had almost 200 applications for the post and are interviewing 10 people, any of whom would be perfectly able to fill the post. Our job today is to get the right person to compliment the existing board of trustees.”

This was, on the one hand, reassuring to have confirmation that there were no skill gaps in my application and, on the other hand, unnerving to be unsure which of my competencies would be particularly attractive in filling gaps in the existing board.

Through preparation for the interview I knew who the current board members were but it wasn’t clear exactly what skill gaps they might have. I have to confess to feeling a little dissatisfied after the interview, knowing that I had given a good account of myself but also knowing that success, or failure, would be down to chance. The chance that I would be the missing ingredient to create this perfect “blend” on the board.

I then faced this dilemma in reverse, when chairing the interview panel for the library. On paper we were interviewing seven excellent candidates, whose skills would, in different ways, add value to the work of the organisation. What was uppermost in my mind when I was listening to the women answer questions at interview was, “would this person compliment or duplicate the skills of existing board members. Would this personality blend or clash with the existing team.”

It was interesting to reflect how my attitude when being interviewed was, “you should just pick the best person and worry about how to create a good working environment later” while my attitude while interviewing was, “will this person blend well with the current board.” While I am confident that we selected the best candidates to fill the vacancies at the library, consideration of the overall board mix was actually as, or even more, important than the skill set of the individual.

4. Feedback

I am pretty sure that, in my younger days, if I had ever been unsuccessful at interview that I’d have sulked. Disappointment is understandable but the lessons to be learned from failure are more important than those learned from success. So make sure that you get feedback. My first interview for a public appointment, sometime in early 2013 I think, was a disaster. The process was entirely unfamiliar and I failed to give compelling examples of my particular competencies. Knowing that, you can be sure I didn’t make that mistake this time.

And offer feedback to all candidates if you are interviewing. It is only reasonable that if someone has committed a large amount of time in applying for a post and attending interview that they are able to learn something from that experience. And it is a good discipline for the interviewer, to focus on why the choice was made and be able to justify that choice.

5. Conclusion

Not so much a conclusion as a reflection. The experience of being interviewed for a board post and interviewing for board members in such a short space of time has been illuminating. It might not be the very best person on paper or the best person at interview that gets the post.

I can finish with a metaphor. I’m a fan of Great British Menu. For those of you who haven’t seen it, chefs from around Britain compete against each other over four sessions to cook starter, fish course, main and dessert. Each day the dishes are marked and then, at the end of the week, the chef who has cooked the best menu overall goes through to the next round. In this way the best chef from each region goes through to a final and cooks all four dishes again. In this final process the aim is to put together a single menu, chosen from the dishes presented by the different chefs, to be served at a banquet. The judges do not necessarily choose the best dish in each course but have to create a balanced menu. So, for example, if they have decided that the main course is going to be duck it is very unlikely that the starter chosen will be pigeon, even if the pigeon dish was the best of the starters on offer.

Getting the right blend on a menu is more important than having the very best dish at each course. And getting the right blend on a board may not be by choosing the very best candidate.