Women on Boards

Photo by Giacomo Ferroni on Unsplash

In her speech Votes for Women Emmeline Pankhurst stated “We women suffragists have a great mission, the greatest mission the world has ever known. It is to free the human race, and through that freedom to save the rest”.

Much progress has been made over the past 100 years since Emily Davidson jumped out in front of the King’s horse and women are making it to the top – albeit still in small numbers – and yet it feels like the pace of change has slowed and needs to be kick started if freedom for the rest is to be achieved. Perhaps the Two Percent Club launched today will be the catalyst.

It is now a truth, universally acknowledged, that gender diversity in the boardroom has a positive influence on a company’s performance. Statistics of market performance and company practice prove this. Yet the statistics also show that few companies are taking serious strategic action towards addressing the issue let alone are making any progress regarding parity.

Whilst the Davies report attempted to put some impetus behind the issue and had some success by getting a limited number of companies to sign up to a board target. It has not led to a step change in organisations more broadly.

I have grown tired of the well rehearsed arguments that maintain the status quo a) there are not enough women in our industry to sit on our board and b) we must have the best people on boards which quotas will not deliver. I do agree that we need the best people on boards both Corporate and not-for-profit, I simply don’t agree that there aren’t enough capable, intelligent women to fulfil such roles. As one FTSE 100 Chairman put it “why would you deny yourself access to half the world’s intellect? It’s a no-brainer.

Where companies may have to be creative is in how they judge women to be good board material – it will not be possible just to look at years of service and linear progression. Women’s careers tend to involve more stops and starts because of children. This has been seen as reducing women’s potential, interpreted almost as a lack of commitment. In fact it should be appreciated for bringing a wider experience and less narrowly focused view into the boardroom.

For me introducing quotas – which have been successful in Norway – appears to be the only way to bring about a paradigm shift. I want to see this achieved in my lifetime. Quotas are a blunt instrument but the sophisticated way would be to introduce legislation with a quota sunset clause after 15-20 years by which time all organisations will have felt the positive impact of change.

As a mother of two boys, what drives me is I want the workplace to be a different by the time they reach it in a decade or so and for this I am willing to take a stand. It is precisely the challenges I see men and women struggling with in the workplace that create a sense of urgency. Only by creating parity in the workplace from top (both executive and non-executive boards) to bottom will we bring about the freedom for both men and women and in so doing free the human race.