“I don’t think women fit comfortably into the board environment”
“All the ‘good’ women have already been snapped up”
“We have one woman on the board, so we are done – it is someone else’s turn”
These comments might sound like they’re straight out of a smoky, oak-panelled boardroom in the 1960s. In fact, they were collected just this year as part of the Hampton-Alexander review into improving boardroom representation for women.
It’s seriously tempting to dismiss these ideas as the views of a few old dinosaurs – exceptions, rather than the rule. At worst, you might imagine that they’re opinions that would only be expressed anonymously to a researcher, never in the office and still less at the boardroom table.
New statistics, however, suggest that despite many businesses paying lip service to board diversity, it’s still a long way off. The government-backed target is for 33% of C-suite executives to be women by 2020. But to date, only one in four boardroom positions in the FTSE 350 are occupied by women, and still worse many companies have only one or even zero female board members.
It’s incredibly disappointing that we’re still having this conversation two years after these targets were set. Boardroom equality is an issue for every business in every sector – and it’s one that all leaders must urgently address.
From PR exercise to business imperative
Given the number of executives expressing support for the Hampton-Alexander review, you’d be forgiven for thinking that boardroom equality is an issue that businesses are rushing to address.
Dig into the figures, however, and you’ll see that 10 firms in the FTSE 350 still have all male boards. These businesses have failed to make a single female appointment in the two years since the target was set. The media industry isn’t exactly a shining light either, with only a 0.3% increase in female board members from 2016 to 2017.
Together with the comments above, this suggests that in many quarters board equality is still seen as an external pressure – a PR exercise or a ‘nice to have’, rather than something in the interests of the organisation.
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But from a business perspective, diversity is a no-brainer and an absolute must for those who wish to remain competitive. The more diverse a company is, the richer it will be in terms of the quality of its ideas.
Creativity and innovation are more important than ever in these times of change and it is critical that this begins within the leadership team. Without improving the gender balance of the boardroom, businesses will become irrelevant – and that seems like a pretty clear incentive.
Women are customers too
Another enticement to improve board equality is highlighted by the media industry especially. We’re part of a creative sector, which is completely focused on engaging the audiences of today. But even now, advertisements can be created that perpetuate gender stereotypes – prompting the Advertising Standards Authority to release new guidelines just last year in a bid to end sexist content. Discriminatory ads are not just wrong, they’re ineffective, especially when you consider that 70-80% of purchases are made by women.
It’s up to advertisers, creative teams and agencies to create engaging advertising content based on age, regions, life stages, career aspirations and culture, not outdated stereotypes. It’s critical then that as a media organisation we can reflect modern culture and trends from within. We absolutely need women within our organisation, and especially our leadership, if we’re to develop creative and exciting ideas to engage with women.
The media sector must be trail-blazers in reflecting our audiences, but the same incentive applies to other industries. Customers are more diverse than ever; we need to match, reflect and understand them.
Diversifying the board
With all that said, improving board equality is not a tickbox exercise that can be completed overnight. Businesses should not set out to hit gender equality targets for the sake of it. It’s up to organisations to ensure that their board is the best team to drive the business to success. That means hiring the right people, many of whom will be women.
But boards, just like other positions, can err towards hiring ‘like for like’ – appointing new members with similar experiences and even outlooks to their predecessors. Of course, in a role that has traditionally been dominated by men, that will more often than not mean hiring another man.
To improve equality, it’s critical to have an open mind about appointments and recognise that combining a range of skillsets and experiences creates strength. If you can internalise the fact that greater diversity is in fact an advantage, you’ll ensure that you’re more open to finding the right candidate whatever their gender.
A blueprint for the future
In the long-term diversity also depends on businesses fostering the development of employees, both female and male. Creating flexible working patterns, and particularly incorporating mindful working practices, can enable employees to better balance their career with their family commitments, as well as generally improving how they perform.
Supporting workers after maternity (and paternity) leave through returner programmes will also ensure that employees can continue to build their seniority and experience, even after becoming parents. Making diversity a central pillar of the whole organisation will allow everyone to flourish – and importantly overcome the excuse that there simply aren’t enough ‘good’ female candidates for the board.
A matter of urgency
The target of one in three board members being women by 2020 shouldn’t be ambitious. But in effect it means that half of all new board appointments will need to go to women over the next two years. It’s time for businesses to act on board equality and move away from the idea that gender equality is an external demand. It’s vital to their organisation’s future.
At MediaCom, we’re very proud to have a 50:50 split in our senior management in London, but we’re still looking to improve equality by 10% year on year. Our own Glass Wall Steering group will also hope to smash those glass walls, rather than discuss them. We’re ensuring that our organisations have gender balanced candidate lists for senior roles and gender balanced interview panels for employing people, and recruiting our teams to share, empower and to challenge the wrongs we all see every day.
If we can all treat gender equality as a matter of urgency, then maybe we can hope for a different conversation by 2020.
About the author
Josh Krichefski, UK CEO of MediaCom