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How Can We Get More Women in the Boardroom?

Posted: 01/06/2012 11:04

Walk into a company boardroom in the UK and you will find members likely to be ageing, white, straight, middle class and, most notably for my arguments here, overwhelmingly male. In fact currently just 16% of board members are female. Look a little closer and you'll discover that only 6% of the executive, board-level directors of FTSE 150 companies in 2012 are women. I'm sure most of you reading this are fully aware of these stats as the media have been talking about it for a while now. How are we to reach our target of 30% female board directors by 2015 set by the European Commission's Justice, Fundamental Rights and Citizenship commissioner?

I shouldn't really have to discuss here why we want more women in the boardroom; but I'll cite that it is high on the agenda for Baroness Margaret Prosser, deputy chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission who champions diversity. If you don't believe in fair and equal opportunities for all regardless of arbitrary factors that are the luck of the draw (such as gender) then you should probably stop reading here. Or perhaps you should continue and you never know I may convert a misogynist or two. Probably more likely that you mistook this for an article about women in the bedroom, in which case this is differently the wrong blog for you.

First off let's hear what some of the countries politicians, psychologists and business people have to say about why women are struggling to make it to the top. A study from Institute of Leadership and Management on ambition and gender remarks that 'they (women) tend to lack self-belief and confidence.' President of BT Global Services, Ms Timmons, notes that "sometimes people still think they should be handed things - but they've just absolutely got to have more confidence in their abilities." Diane Abbott MP says that women, unlike men 'tend to think of the reasons why they shouldn't do something.' All references to BBC here

They are all saying here that on the one hand women lack confidence and self-belief and therefore expect things to be handed to them (which is bad), yet we are also programmed from puberty to be more risk averse. Therefore surely the confidence deficiency isn't our fault and is simply down to biology? So in conclusion, we should overcome this biological programming to have more belief in ourselves, be confident like men and importantly we should not expect a leg up on the way (because that would make us lazy and demanding). Well that really gave me a confidence boost right there.

I don't think there is a significant biological difference between the genders with reference to confidence, referring once again to the stereotype threat argument made by Fine. These libertarian I-made-it-without-help-why-can't-you feminists are actually engendering these otherwise minimal gender differences into stereotypes by constantly telling women they are the less confident sex. Leadership psychologist Averil Leimon is right when she says we are actually conditioned by society from a young age to behave differently; 'girls to keep quiet and boys to shout out.'

Moreover this proclaimed lack of confidence and self-belief has not stopped women from outperforming their male counterparts at school and representing 60% of university graduates. So why is this information mentioned far less? Because it doesn't explain why many firms who hire at entry level on a 50-50 split end up with an all-male board. You can start to see where we are going wrong in our approach to this problem.

How about we look at this from a different perspective? Like from that of the hiring companies and existing board members. Because all too often the focus with this discussion is on how the women can make it, pushing the responsibility onto them, and deflecting the attention from those doing the hiring and the promoting. After all, say if a company hires 50% females at entry level, what internal mechanisms mean less than a fifth end up on the board? If they are good enough to be hired in the first place, surely statistically they are just a likely to end up on the board as men?

Now I know some of you will say that I'm missing something here by not discussing women's choice to have children as they get to that stage in their careers. And all companies need to do is just improve their childcare provisions! Wave the magic wand and all is solved. Only claiming this is the only obstacle further entrenches the norm that childrearing is a female responsibility. I'm not going to talk about this more here just to say that more importantly it is a straw man argument which often masks the real reason. We need to challenge how we condition boys and girls from a young age; how we repeatedly tell one sex they are confident and risk taking and the other that they are not.

Combined with this stereotype threat that women feel is the subconscious bias from the employer towards hiring someone similar to them. Fine again gives evidence to shows how this is the case, and given that most current board members are male, they are more likely to hire men. The problem is then, how do we stop this occurring when it is subconscious?

There are a couple of things we could do here. One option would be to introduce a quota. Although they have received a lot of bad PR and I recognise that rather than force board directors to hire women, as it can cause resentment and won't necessarily change opinions, we need to challenge our attitudes and unconscious biases. The good news is there is evidence that this is changing; in my experience I've seen a lot of organisations trying to be more diverse, to the point where it can feel quite strange to be in a homogenous environment be that with regards to gender or other factors such as race. We need to create an expectation; an eyebrow should be raised at an all-male meeting with us all remaining constantly critical. This way it is on our radar and we can work to remove the unconscious bias and stereotype threats.

 

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