Six simple steps to get more women on boards

When you think about it, there is every reason to have more women on boards.   Bruce Cotterill talks about his column on NBR Radio and on demand via MyNBR Radio.

I just did a Google Images search.  I typed “Board of Directors” into the search line.  Immediately, as we have come to expect, my screen lit up with hundreds of photos.  In this case the photos are of men in suits.  They are mostly sitting around oversized tables or standing in line posing for the company photo.  Oh, and occasionally, there is a woman.  I then went to my favourite photos site and searched “Women on Boards.”  Guess what came up?  Surfing pictures.

During the post GFC era, there has been a growing chorus in favour of the cause for “more women on boards.”  Some have even called for the introduction of compulsory quotas of female to male representation. 

In my executive life I have been fortunate to work with some fantastic women.  Dedicated, committed and smart.  Many of these women have been juggling lots of other stuff in their lives.  Like professional husbands, kids and nannies.  Most of those cases have been in very difficult environments too.  Highly competitive businesses, difficult turnarounds and industries going through massive transformation.  And yet they still front up every day and do outstanding work. 

I have to say, that in my governance life I see fewer of them.  That is unfortunate.  Those who I do see are outstanding. 

When you think about it, there is every reason to have more women on boards.  They are typically more intuitive, more likely to have well rounded views, and often have a more relevant “market perspective.”  In fact, the best women are better in my view, than the best men.  And yet, we still see all male boards and even all male executive teams, even sitting atop retail organisations and consumer brand companies, where in reality most of their customers are women.

Almost all of the boards I have sat on, past or present, have had women members.  In nearly every case, they have brought a unique perspective and been great contributors.  In fact, we have just recruited a new member to one of our Boards.  Female, late thirties, with outstanding references.  It’s her first board, and yet I am really excited about what she will bring to the director team.

So, why aren’t there more women on Boards?

Well, there’s a problem.  You see, there are not enough of them.  That’s right.  There is a shortage of qualified, experienced women who can fill these roles.  The reason?  This is probably not politically correct to say but I call it career disruption.

As nature dictates, most women will have a major interruption to their career.  Consider the challenges that we men do not have to deal with.  Women who decide to have children are often forced to drag themselves through their pregnancy, working 60 hours a week, feeling unwell, tired, overheated and overweight.  Despite this obvious inconvenience, I’ve seen many who haven’t missed a beat.

Once the baby arrives, the interruption to a woman’s career takes hold.  From the boardroom to the baby’s room can be a difficult transition for some, and a welcome and joyous break for others.  From the perspective of retaining women in the workforce, this is where the challenge begins.  Many women choose not to return to work, and rightly so.  Instead they focus on getting their babies away to a great start in life, first steps, kindergarten and swimming lessons.  And that’s ok.

Others will feel the pressure to return to their careers for a range of reasons.  A need to fulfil ambitions, to stay in contact with the marketplace, or financial drivers can force the decision.  Typically, that pressure comes with guilt-trips about a lack of time spent with baby and children being brought up by nannies.

Post baby, some women are able to get straight back into the rough and tumble of executive life without missing a beat.  Others take time.  Two kids can cost five years of career progression and the related lessons that only time in the executive team huddle can provide.  Still another group, their priorities now altered, will deliberately choose never to hit their previous heights again.

So here’s the point.  Although we all start off our careers with equal numbers of men and women around us, families and changing priorities reshape the dynamic.  And in most cases it is the female partner in the relationship who takes a step back from her career.

A number of women drop out by not returning at all.  (My once career-minded wife was one of these.)  Others downscale their ambition and activity.  Still more find it hard to balance their new lives and fail to catch up on the five years lost.  This leaves only a small group to go forward and become suitably experienced, qualified and eligible for the director roles we so badly need them to fill.

So, how do we attract more women on to boards?

In my view, quotas are not the solution.  Quotas mean that you will get the numbers in place but not necessarily the skills or capability.  We have to remember that there is now a greater onus of responsibility on company directors than ever before.  The post GFC world has seen to that.  We must therefore have people on boards who have sufficient experience and skills to enable them to be effective in such roles.  Quotas don’t ensure that.

The first step is a need to recognise the obstacles that women face in continuing their careers beyond the arrival of their family.  As a result we must create opportunities that enable their skills to continue to develop, despite the interruptions and challenges to their careers.  In other words, to create an environment where women can continue to be exposed to different experiences that help to facilitate their path to the boardroom.  Here are some ideas about how we can do

Firstly, to acknowledge the mid-career challenges that women have, the disadvantage that brings, and identify ways to provide “unfair advantages” to those returning to help them regain their career momentum

  1. To make it easier for women to re-enter their executive careers by being more flexible about the terms and conditions under which they do
  2. To support returning executive women in their pursuit of the skills, experience and learning needed to enable them to develop into highly competent executives and subsequently, directors, by ensuring they get training and mentoring to compensate for what they may have missed out on while
  3. To maximise the opportunities offered by the excellent “Future Director” programme, initiated by Sir Stephen Tindall and Michael Stiassny and led by the Institute of Directors, and ensure that incumbent boards are supporting those initiatives, preferably with a female
  4. To create opportunities for women to join boards in both the voluntary (a great place to develop governance skills) and commercial sectors while they are still working in executive roles, thus enabling them to continue the personal development necessary to be successful in their pursuit of a portfolio

And finally, to take the odd risk, on a great person with executive experience and boardroom aspirations.

Looking back over those photos, not to mention a dozen or so annual reports sitting on my desk, the male domination of the boardroom has been a persistent and permanent part of business history.  While there are changes occurring they are slow.  We must first understand the demands on the female executive.  Thereafter, acknowledging the challenge as being about something “more than numbers” and taking the steps above, we can provide a long-term solution to an issue that will otherwise take another generation to overcome.

The women who get to the boardroom are usually outstanding.  That’s probably because of what they have to go through to get there.  If only there were more of them. 

Bruce Cotterill is a five time chief executive, company director and keynote speaker who advises business leaders on leadership, performance improvement, management and governance. He blogs at www.brucecotterill.com

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