Why aren't women at the board table?
The government has an aspiration to increase the number of female directors, and Lord Davies’ report for the Department of Business Innovation and Skills recommended that at least half of all new appointees to the boards of public bodies should be women.
The debate is whether there should be legislation to force quotas on companies, to ensure women are at the top table. My initial response was a firm ‘No’ to quotas, because no self-respecting woman wants to be in a position of responsibility purely because they make up the numbers.
However, on reflection, I am persuaded that quotas are necessary. We have had sex equality legislation in the UK for 40 years and women are still under-represented at director level in British companies (and they are still, by comparison with men, sorely underpaid). Women are more than capable of being directors- so why are they not at the board table?
Old boy's network
There are a number of possible reasons: maybe directors are appointed because existing (male) directors only invite contacts in their network to join the board, thus perpetuating the old boy’s club approach, maybe the prospect of being the only female on a board of male directors is unattractive, or maybe women prefer to run their own business.
There is no doubt that ambitious women frequently choose self-employment over the antisocial demands of corporate life, and go on to make a great success of their enterprise.
The lack of women at the top means that boards are not diverse, and inevitably, this affects decision making. Responsible decisions require representation of minority views, challenge from different perspectives and healthy debate, before reaching conclusions.
Yet we know from our latest Roffey Park research, the Management Agenda 2011, directors appear to have a rosier view of their organisations than front line staff.
Across a range of measures, such as feeling secure in their job, being optimistic about finding work elsewhere, and progressing their careers, directors’ views were consistently more positive than managers in their organisations.
Male dominated boards - living in a bubble
Most significantly, 89% of directors said leadership was excellent in their organisation, yet at the middle manager level only 66% said leadership was excellent. It appears that male dominated boards are living in a bubble, isolated from the fears and anxieties faced by the managers at the front line.
This is where women can play a part. Their typically collaborative leadership style means they are more likely to be aware of how people across the organisation are feeling, and staff like to know that someone at the top is interested in them as individuals. The sense of being cared about is a vital factor in staff engagement, and employees who are fully engaged are more productive and committed to their jobs.
Women to play a key role
In addition to providing connection with the front line, women have a key role to play in setting direction and delivering results in large companies. I firmly believe that if there were more women at the top of financial services businesses, we would have less concern about governance.
Women typically provide a collective approach, thinking about a wide range of stakeholders and aiming for win:win outcomes.
It’s time for women to be less modest and take up the challenge of leading companies to a more responsible and sustainable future, and if they are still finding it difficult to get on the board, then government quotas will provide the necessary impetus. Until at least 30% of directors are female, we will not feel the benefit of their leadership.