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.