Boardroom politics & female leaders still in the 70s?

Written by
Changeboard Team

01 Nov 2014

01 Nov 2014 • by Changeboard Team

Progression from the 70s?

It's 1975, I've just joined an American bank as branch supervisor, responsible for six people. I am walking through Reading High Street handing out leaflets on personal loans. I am dressed in my employer-provided uniform of long white patent high-heeled boots, a tight white mini-dress and wearing a huge floppy hat. My manager celebrates our success with a slap on my backside. I do not hit him back.

I am often asked, during the female leadership sessions I run, how I moved from being in that situation to becoming a resident vice president of Citibank 10 years later. The answer is partly in the title; I made sure I took on high value-add roles and that key people knew about me as a result of high performance and fractional networking.

So what has changed since the 70s for working women? Have we progressed to the top of the corporate ladder at the speed we have been persistently promised? Has gender parity on boards or in policy making roles been achieved?


Female board representation

In response to the Lord Davies report, over two-thirds of the FTSE 100 firms are still yet to set out their targets for increasing female board representation to 25% by 2015. This serves to illustrate how little appetite there is for achieving even the minimum gender balance on boards for the majority.

Some commentators regard this as unsurprising as it is contemptuous, and most likely will further the imposition of quotas – a key area EU focus coincidentally - but something most women don't want. There is a question too as to where is the voice of HR and heads of talent in these organisations?


I find it quite difficult to celebrate the findings of the Cranfield report released in mid-October which highlights that only 14.2% (up from 12.5% in 2010) of FTSE 100 directorships are held by women. Even though I applaud the progress being made, there are still 14% of the FTSE 100 and 47.6% of FTSE 250 with all-male-boards, and it would be interesting to understand their reasons for this leadership torpor.

Such institutional inertia benefits few, and encourages more robust political or regulatory intervention and no wonder David Cameron feels the need to get involved. He apparently will be writing to the companies yet to comply with requirements of the Davies report, urging them to do so. This action is very heartening; I'm sure it's the first time a Prime Minister has become so personally engaged in gender equality in this way. But will even this have the desired effect when what was a set target appears now to have become an aspirational goal? How did that happen?

Female leadership traits primed for board level

I have noticed that an increasing number of business and HR leaders I've shared panels with discuss the merits of having 'appropriate' women in a board role. I am also not sure why this is such a taxing consideration; board membership is gender-neutral, isn’t it? However, it does seem to be a real sticking point for many organisations in that they are either unwilling or unable to articulate what 'appropriate' means for them.

Creating a boardroom blueprint for succession

What then is an ‘appropriate’ woman for a board or senior role? Unsurprisingly, this may be different for different organisations, but will probably include a combination of core ‘hard measures’ i.e. specific functional experience, performance and knowledge, together with certain ‘soft’ intangible attributes.

For example, these attributes could include; increasing the thought leadership capability within the board, reducing ‘group think’, representing the organisation’s values, successfully adding value and contributing to board effectiveness, fit culturally (after filtering what this means, for unconscious bias), have authority and communicates effectively and confidently.

This collection of features, characteristics and traits may then be developed, extended to detail the choice of evidence required to support each attribute or other profile element and the profile created. Prospective candidates may then be mapped (or developed) to this blueprint.

Role models & negative effects of quotas

If we look for successful role models, we’ll find them in those companies who are already recognised as being ahead of their peers, and in totally diverse sectors. Both employers Asda and Atkins (the engineering and design consultancy), each have two women on its board, and feature in The Times Top 50 Employers for Women 2011. While hugely different, both organisations appear to regard gender equality the same - as a strategic business issue, not a women’s issue.

Organisations which are unclear about the development of their senior female leadership capability will find this may impact the hiring and retention of high potential women. Many such women may leave through a lack of recognition and opportunity, yet who could have been a great fit for a senior role. This in turn reduces the senior female talent pipeline.

The latter is a critical point, evidenced by Norway's sub-board level female pipeline, post-quotas. It apparently still has the same issue of insufficient numbers of women being developed and coached for boardroom or other senior roles in Norwegian companies.  This situation shows one of the downside of enforcing quotas –a sudden demand meets inadequate supply. Other unintended consequences of this are the creation of non-value, ‘dummy’, tokenistic board roles engineered purely to comply with a quota requirement, and the same few (probably exhausted) women having multi-board membership. Such scenarios are completely avoidable if organisations realise that the pursuit of boardroom gender parity will not disappear, but is to be embraced.

The other thinking around quotas not being a good thing is that somehow low-calibre women will push out presumably high-calibre men everywhere. To paraphrase Suzanne Moore’s wonderfully pithy remark in the press: “We certainly wouldn't want a bunch of low-calibre people running stuff, would we, looking at the amazing results the high-calibre guys in the certain sectors have achieved.”

Like most women, I don’t like quotas but can understand the frustrations of those who, after over 40 years of equality legislation, are thinking ‘enough is enough, we just need to get on with it’.

Female career ownership

Successful corporate women recognise that the most critical factor in their rise is that they must perform excellently and take real ownership of their career. This is crucial if we consider McKinsey's research findings released in February that: “Middle-management women are still being promoted on performance, whilst middle-management men are promoted on potential.”

So what needs to be done by women to increase their visibility and progression? Successful female role models (including many I have mentored) consistently display the following behaviours and characteristics, they:

  • are proactive in mapping out their next role and the steps and developmental needs required to bag it
  • have a clear sense of their value, worth, strengths and weaknesses
  • work with a coach/mentor (or different ones for different purposes) to achieve their highest performance
  • are, or have become, confident in themselves
  • learn to network well and capitalise on relationships – internal and external
  • do not take on low profile assignments but find non-role, high visibility programmes or tasks to get engaged with
  • do not become a Barbie clone or think they have to speak, act and behave like men

How should employers meet this challenge?

HR, talent and succession planning leaders could consider building a plan covering the following:

1. Hire, train and/or develop more women for the 'hard' senior roles such as sales, finance or others with revenue generating accountability. Ensure talent and succession planning team and key business influencers are fully engaged in the process.

2. Develop a senior female talent pipeline. Construct a profile detailing exactly what an 'appropriate' women for a board or senior leadership role means to your organisation. Edit for unconscious bias, and map against your high potential female talent pool, and develop them accordingly.

3. Insist recruitment resources provide 50:50 male to female candidate shortlists. I know, I know, this will be tough. But we have to look for female potential not just male (and unconscious bias again), if we don't want to reinforce McKinsey's findings.

4. Work out how best to use Executive Committees as a training ground for developing potential board or senior leadership role female candidates. This was something intended to be recommended in Lord Davies' report.

5. Find and support the male advocates, sponsors and mentors and ensure your female talent pool connects with them.

Gender balance power and influence

Achieving gender balance in positions of power and influence is critical - not just for organisations, but because of the community and societal issues.

We have a population where 52% is female, 60% of graduates this year will be female, nearly 50% of the work force – about 12 million – is female, and circa 75% of family buying decisions are made by women (about 90% in our house). Why is such a huge and influential sector of society not appropriately represented in the organisations that purport to serve it – and thrive because of it?

As professionals we should not be asking why should women be on boards or in the most senior roles, but why not?

About Jan Floyd-Douglass

Jan Floyd-Douglass has pioneered female leadership development and gender balance in organisations for over 25 years which she combined with a senior leadership career in financial services and banking. ‘Women on Boards’ was her special interest area whilst Jan was a Commissioner for the Women’s National Commission. A qualified ILM Level 7 executive coach and leadership mentor, Jan mentors both businesses and individuals. She also  works with organisations to help  them develop and deliver strategies to increase their senior female leadership capability, depth and reach.