AER Roundtable: Women on Boards
Summary and Key Highlights
What barriers are we facing?
- Very little demand for diverse shortlists and some sectors (pharma as an example) do not seem to have picked up on this agenda
- According to one recruiter, they had never been asked to prepare a diverse shortlist. Sometimes a country-specific one, but not otherwise diverse.
- It was noted it is still a headline if a female head gets hired by a boys school or vice versa.
- In some sectors, women are much more present at high levels, such as the charity sector.
- It was noted that most promotions are internal, and that especially in this climate, companies are looking inside first to fill new roles. Also, if a new role is created at board level, it may be due to a previous problem (eg someone being forced out), which means they are looking for a very specific type of individual to replace them.
Supply side issues
- It was noted that there can still be problems in the supply of women candidates at the right level in some sectors.
- It was noted that some of the worst performing sectors in terms of diversity are natural resources (gas, oil etc), and performance is patch across most sectors. Banks however are now making a big effort.
- It was noted that the charity sector has many more females at high levels, and that smaller firms seem a lot more open to the idea of women at the top.
- The question of whether FTSE firms would be interested in considering women for board positions with non-corporate (but high level) experience, was raised.
- It was agreed that recruiters need to inform and suggest to clients that they need to seek out a diverse candidate field so as not to miss out on talent. However it was also clear that clients are very risk averse, particularly in the current climate, and may not feel at ease outside of their traditional hiring approach.
- One issue raised is that women who are qualified don’t seem to be making the shortlist, but it’s very tough to get feedback from clients on why.
- It was stated that women need to be coached to feel ready to step up to board level – even if they are competent, they may lack confidence to make the leap. The confidence gap may also make it harder for them to perform well at interview and assessment.
- It was agreed we need role models for women of successful female board members, but that some women may be reluctant to be the ‘guinea pigs’ or first movers in this area, as such a role can be challenging.
- It was noted that there are often different approaches to career development between men and women. One participant explained that if a woman meets six of ten criteria for a role, she may not feel qualified enough to go for it, whilst a man may be more likely to make the approach based on the fact that they have a majority of the requirements.
- This means that women may ‘de-select’ themselves from the applicant pool.
- It was noted that men can lack confidence to the same degree, but tend to hide it better.
- One participant explained a trial approach whereby all identifitying information was removed to avoid discrimination, but that this made the process very de-humanized.
- One agency said that they are seeing more employers being open to flexibility within the workplace, which is an important aspect of getting more women on boards since women still tend to be primary carers for children or older relatives.
- Another agency said that getting feedback is extremely difficult from clients, perhaps due to the fact that the HR people involved may feel vulnerable, particularly if they aren’t sure they made the right choice.
- It was noted that professional organisations, which are important networking forums, are still very male dominated, although many are getting better.
What are the solutions?
- It was agreed that women’s networking organisations have an important role, especially in providing role models and encouraging women to go for the next step.
- However, we need both women and men providing support to women in the workplace, and both male and female role models who support diversity.
- It was noted that younger women seem to be taking greater advantage of training and other opportunities available to help them progress.
- Participants agreed that we need better coaching and training for managers so they can mentor their own workers. This is not just to promote gender balance, but overall workplace success.
- One participant explained that women’s networking is good, but it can’t be a single gender approach to the mainstream. Rather we need to change the way we do businesses and work together more fundamentally.
- It was agreed that such change and motivation of young women starts very early, eg at school.
- Participants felt bringing successful women and businesspeople more generally to speak in schools was very important, as are multidisciplinary approaches.
- Some participants expressed concern that after more than a decade of this topic being discussed, it feels as if things are going backwards
- One person commented that often, there are behavioural issues that need addressing, such as the tone and approach set by the head of a company that filters down throughout the staff.
1) Business bodies need to drive activity among their members and spread good practice. We need a change of mindset in the world of UK business as well, to avoid continually taking a negative and ‘anti’ approach.
2) More must be done with employers on their requirements, including flagging up if they are inadvertently discriminating. It’s also an education issue for CEOs, managers and leaders to drive behavioural change. We need clean language, transparency and peer pressure for better practices.
3) Recruiters need to ‘be brave’ in challenging client requirements, even in the recession. We need to build up strong recruiters through good professional training, so they can be truly consultative and have the confidence to challenge clients.
4) Research should be done to collect better data about the characteristics of current female board members and how they achieved their roles. This should include examples from the recruitment sector, and look at whether these women are considered to be role models and inspirational to other women.
5) The introduction of a ‘guaranteed interview’ scheme for women who meet the criteria should be explored. This mirrors the scheme for those with disabilities, but would require clear measurement and transparency if adopted.
6) Better and more accessible coaching and mentoring is required, by both women and men in organisations, as is building up managers to be able to mentor their staff. Building up mid-to senior level women is critical. Strong on-boarding and training for board appointees by chairs is also essential to success.