Women on Boards (WOB UK) is an organisation that exists to help women make the right connections and choices to get to the boardroom. Parental Choice spoke to Rowena Ironside, Chair of WOB UK, to see how important it is that women are represented at board level:
“A lot of people assume that now that women are graduating from universities at the same rate as men, the legacy of a patriarchal workplace where women were excluded from many roles and forced to retire on marriage, will resolve naturally over time. This assumption rests on the belief that people make it to the top of organisations based solely on ability and hard work, or “merit”. However this is not borne out by the evidence. If merit was alive and well there would be more than 5 female CEOs in the FTSE100 and we would not have had 19 UK prime ministers from the same boy’s school. Whether or not women chose to have children, their route to the top is rarely on equal terms with their male colleagues.
Why is it important to have more women at the top?
1. The boardroom -and in politics the Cabinet – are where the ultimate decisions are taken and capital is allocated. Did you know that female-only sports attract only 5% cent of sports funding in the UK, whilst male-only sports attract eight times as much, even though women are matching men in the medal counts in international competitions. Or that only 5 per cent of early-stage investment capital goes to female entrepreneurs? Only with more female voices at the top will these misallocations of capital start to resolve.
2. The board also sets the tone for organisational culture and ethics. With so few women at the top challenging stereotypes and pointing out the things that don’t work well for them, organisations are currently lacking both the impetus to change and the insights needed to design a culture and modus operandi that works for both men and women.
3. Thirdly, there is the need for female role models. Young people frequently decide what they want to do with their lives when they see someone who inspires them. We need more women at the top of organisations and politics to inspire and excite girls and young women about what it means to be in a position of ultimate responsibility and play an active part in changing the world.
The dividends of diversity
The business case for diverse and inclusive organisations has now been convincingly made – global research shows that organisations with a higher proportion of women in senior leadership perform better financially. Perhaps more interesting to many of us are the factors which underlie this improved performance in gender-diverse organisations:
- Diversity fuels innovation. Decision quality is higher within diverse teams – the debate is richer because it encompasses a wider range of experiences, perspectives and priorities.
- Customer orientation is stronger. As women make around 80% of purchasing decisions, their input to product and service development and delivery decisions strengthens competitive advantage.
- Employee satisfaction improves; most people prefer to work for organisations that value diversity, where role models exist for everyone regardless of gender or ethnicity.
- Last but not least, women make up 50% of the world’s talent. As global competition increases, organisations ignore this talent pool at their peril.
The power of targets to change the status quo
Despite the benefits of diversity, 95% of FTSE250 executive directors are currently men. It is clear from statistics like these that women aren’t making it to the top in numbers that reflect their potential. The root causes include unseen influences on both selection and promotion, such as gender stereotypes and unconscious bias. Re-entering the workforce after maternity leave is accompanied by its own set of assumptions and practical challenges, hindered by a wide-scale failure of imagination around flexible working options.
Targets are a widely understood method of focusing attention on what is valued by an organisation. Most managers have targets of some sort – whether for financial results, educational outcomes, or pot-holes filled – and will optimise decisions to meet them. So whilst the benefits of diverse teams may be clearly visible from a strategic perspective, unless improving the gender mix is made an explicit goal for middle managers, their decisions on who to hire and promote will continue to be made within the context of individual preferences and biases. To combat the power of the status quo, Women on Boards believes that organisations need to analyse their workforce gender composition and set targets for gender mix where the numbers are clearly unrepresentative.
In the run-up to the 2015 elections, WOB UK will be advocating that each of the political parties should commit to achieving targets of 40:40:20 gender representation on all UK public sector boards by 2020 [40% men, 40% women, 20% either gender]. A similar target set in Australia in 2010 was achieved within 3 years, which shows that it is possible to find female talent when people have the right incentives to look beyond the “usual suspects”.”
Chair, Women on Boards UK