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Lead with success > Women And The Boardroom > A Woman’s Place is in the Boardroom

A Woman’s Place is in the Boardroom

Reviewed by Sarah Wilshaw-Sparkes

This 2005 book was recommended to us by Philippa Reed, Chief Executive of the EEO Trust. It’s about how and why there are so few women in Boardrooms and senior teams in the big companies and what can be done about it. In the process, it also sets out the business case for why Board Chairs, CEOs and their shareholders should care – a topic close to Professionelle’s heart, as many of you will know!

The authors use international research on women’s progress to outline the opportunity. They then colour it in vibrantly with interviews with FTSE 100 and Fortune 500 Chairmen and CEOs, senior women and Board Directors, and headhunters.

The book makes a great read both for more senior women who aspire to Board positions, and also to younger women, helping them confront “issues and barriers of which they as yet have no inkling.” For me, it was affirming to find a book full of the issues we talk and write about at Professionelle.

Highly Recommended

There are three good reasons to read this book:

  1. The interviewees, speaking anonymously, tell it like it is, in PC-free terms. The Boys Club, the Queen Bee syndrome, they’re all here.
  2. It lists specific pipeline-priming actions that women and employers can take
  3. The cartoons are excellent!

Demand Side

So what do the “Kings” – the highly influential males in the largest firms – say about the dearth of women in the boardroom? Several themes came out of these interviews:

  1. The imbalance is a supply problem, the Kings believe. They do want women on their boards but they say they can’t find them.
  2. Some want women on their boards because they believe women bring different and valuable qualities like lateral thinking and listening skills.
  3. The gender imbalance on boards is less surprising, they say, in industries that are heavily male-dominated. Thus 14% of consumer and retail board directorships are held by women, but only 3% of industrials’.
  4. Women’s careers are slowed (but not derailed) by babies and by typically lower mobility. This affects women’s progress in multinationals who expect offshore experience in their top executives and Board candidates.

Headhunters are often gatekeepers for Board appointments and their section provides new perspectives on the demand side. The headhunters deny only looking for Anglo-Saxon male candidates who have run large businesses. As proof they point to the ‘third sector’ boards (NFPs, charities etc) that are professionalising in the UK, and are becoming a hiring pool they will consider. Academia is another such new pool. Nevertheless, the continuing emphasis on candidates who have had bottom line experience comes through strongly in both the headhunters’ remarks, and those of the women directors who were interviewed.

The boards of major companies also are changing and this affects the demand side, according to the headhunters. For example, as boards shrink, the demand for board appointees from functional backgrounds like HR and marketing, which are populated with women, has reduced. On the other hand, appointments in the UK are increasingly handled through Nominating Committees rather than only the CEO, and this means “there’s less recruitment going on ‘in own image’”.

The headhunter section also contains a challenging but refreshingly un-PC list of Do’s and Don’ts for aspiring women directors. A selection of three is in the sidebar below.

Headhunters’ Dos and Don’ts

Find a senior male mentor – you need male input because your interviewers will usually be men. Be candid about your communication style but be very careful about how you talk about your family and hobbies. It is OK for a man to talk about shooting and golf and putting the children to bed – that’s not seen in the same way. It is more difficult for a woman to talk about herself without triggering prejudices about emotional capacity, time, and the ability to juggle domestic commitments.

A lot of women suffer from the interloper syndrome and it comes across. Sometimes they’re a little bit too jokey, some witter on too much…Be confident and succinct. Don’t be afraid to “sell” yourself by …talking about the value you will bring. One of the challenges for women is to be seen by (usually male) interviewers as approachable, competent and professional.

Be well groomed from top to toe. Your appearance should be appropriate and professional; not too severe, that’s a common mistake, but well-tailored.

Supply Side

What do the women in the “marzipan” layer – that’s the one just below the board – say about the very slow progress of women through the boardroom door? In short, they weren’t surprised. When asked what they thought the contributing factors were, they pointed less to the need for flexibility and childcare and more to cultural issues and women’s own shortcomings.

One very interesting concept mentioned at this point comes from GE Capital’s women’s network. They call it the PIE, based on P = Performance, I = Image and E = Exposure. Together these are the ingredients for what the GE network claims creates favourable promotion decisions. The best mix, they believe, is:

  • 10% Performance (because everyone performs)
  • 30% Image (ie being known to be capable)
  • 60% Exposure (ie simply being known)

Women are not good at the E. We tend to undersell ourselves. We’re not that confident. And we sometimes develop coping strategies early in our career for being a woman in a man’s world that can backfire on us as we get more senior.

The confidence and self-promotion issues were recurrent themes throughout the book. “It’s a combination of some men not letting women in and women discounting themselves. Men do things that are high profile, rather than things that need doing. Women pick up so many low-level tasks they don’t have time for higher level tasks.”

So What Works?

The book makes recommendations for priming the pipeline and many of them will be familiar to readers at Professionelle. The list below contains practical steps that either the organisation or women themselves can undertake to increase women at the top:

Measure it! Numbers give shape and focus, though as Unilever’s Global Diversity Director says, “The numbers get it started but don’t get it going.”

  • Top support – finding the right sponsor for the gender diversity campaign. Note: it isn’t necessarily the most senior female, especially if she’s loathe to admit to any gender barriers on her path to the top!
  • Executive coaching – this is for the most senior levels that warrant the investment. Self deprecation and an apparent lack of self esteem are issues the book describes as commonly tackled by senior women in these sessions.
  • Mentoring programmes and role models – a cross company mentoring programme is proving successful, perhaps reflecting the fact that the differences in the area near the Board are less between companies than the differences between different levels in the same firm.
  • Career development programmes – increasing women’s confidence to step up to stretch assignments through interventions like group discussions about career planning, self confidence and male-female communication styles.
  • Childcare and flexible working – good provisions in this area are table stakes for attracting highly talented female staff these days
  • Women’s networks – a way for women to create connections to offset their lack of interest in “political” activities and receive personal and professional development. Also a way for them to contribute to the firm’s marketing insights (e.g. Ford and aspects of car design).

One other critical intervention is to change the culture. The authors are talking here about:

a barrier that consists of assumptions and habits embedded so deeply in cultures and business processes that they are below the threshold of conscious awareness.

A telling story in the book is of the manager group brought together to discuss diversity. They were split into gender groups and asked to describe “what it’s like being a man (or woman – as appropriate) in the company today.” The women were soon scribbling away, the men were perplexed.

The question made no sense to them because, like fish in water, they were so in tune with their environment they struggled to gain any external perspective on it.

Women’s experiences, of course, are typically the opposite. At this point the book provides a rather painful list of micro-inequities – the little unfair actions that, singly, are not worth making a fuss about, but that add up to a frustrating and alienating environment for ambitious women. Simply being able to put a name to such discourtesies, however, helps women (and men) express and address them. So does recruiting sympathetic male allies.

The journey to a changed culture is long, of course, and the book only skims the process. This may explain the authors’ latest book…

Stop Press

In 2008, the authors published a follow up book, entitled A Woman’s Place is in the Boardroom: The Roadmap. The new book is described as a practical guide for how to apply the theories put forward in the first book. Certainly the 2005 book did not have room to investigate the prescriptive recommendations in depth, especially in the area of long term cultural change. I haven’t read this later book but it seems a logical progression of the ideas.

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