There has been much debate recently about the lack of women on the boards of big companies. Senior politicians seem very keen on the subject, hosting various seminars and debates and generally giving off encouraging signals. They all seem to agree that having so few women on boards is a bad thing and that having more would be a good thing. Other than that there seems to be little consensus. Many suggestions, such as those of creating all-female shortlists, are open to criticisms from both sides of the gender politics debate.
One question to consider is whether company boards need in any way to reflect either the nature of their business or of society as a whole. Few would argue that any board would be richer for having a more diverse set of opinions available, but equally few would argue that the board needs to be proportionate in terms of race and gender to its constituency. As many organisations become more global in both outlook and operations it is important that those businesses are properly cognizant of different outlooks but it doesn’t necessarily follow that they need to be run by a certain percentage of people with backgrounds in those countries. Likewise, women may represent half of the population but it doesn’t follow that boards need to do the same merely for reasons of gender symmetry.
Another question may sound obvious, but do women bring a perspective to boardrooms not available to men? Most business people have at some time in their career been through personality tests. These are often fairly binary findings: for instance, extrovert or introvert, thinker or feeler. These tests are supposed to determine how someone will approach and deal with an issue. For whatever reason few tests differentiate between male and female. However, there is much consensus emerging amongst neuroscientists that there is in fact a biological difference between the male and female brain (formed in the early stages of pregnancy). The two brains are, it seems, different and are driven by distinct hormones. As a result they are not organised in the same way leading to the two sexes processing information differently.
The third question is to ask whether we are looking in the wrong direction. One of the reasons why there are so few female board directors is that there is a paucity of suitably qualified candidates. And the reason for that is that fewer women than men make it to the executive committee level in large organisations, effectively blocking the pipeline one level below. And so the answer to getting more women on to boards is not quotas or all-women shortlists; the answer is to get more women on to executive committees. And the solution to that problem is a cultural reformation of what we have come to accept as work.
It does seem curious that at a time in history when there are millions of people unemployed and when technology is bringing us more opportunities than previous generations could ever have imagined, more people than ever are complaining of working too hard. And not just working too hard, but spending too much of their time stuck on trains, buses, and cars getting to an office. For many, work is not something they do but a place where they go. A place full of processes and systems, and of emails and meetings. And a place with its own set of cultural norms. Getting in early and staying late is a sign of dedication. “Going the extra mile”, and other hateful HR-inspired exhortations, ring in people’s ears. Much of what goes on in many organisations, especially those with rigid hierarchies and a silo mentality, is inefficient and ineffective.
Cleverer organisations are using technology to let their people both work remotely more often and to be smarter and outcome focused. They see quality of work as being more important than quantity. It is these types of organisations that are at the forefront of changing the way we think about work and, as a result, breaking down the cultural norms that have seen so many women unable, for a variety of reasons, to break through to the top of organisations.
So perhaps rather than focus on artificial ways to get more women on to boards, the objective should be to help organisations to work smarter and more effectively. It would be more impactful and better in the long term for society if more women helped to change the way we work from the bottom up rather than by being on non-executive supervisory boards per se. As they say, the best change always comes from within.