Time to Man Up Over Diversity in the Boardroom

“No!” chorused the government and the business establishment on hearing that the European Commission wants to force listed companies to reserve at least 40 per cent of their non-executive director board seats for women by 2020, or face fines. Even equality campaigners complained that this isn’t the way to go about achieving diversity.

Nonsense! A quota is a great idea. Bring it on. Why? Quotas force action, and for enlightened companies it's just the sort of action that will generate real benefits.

Yes, it’s true that blunt implementation of previous ‘positive discrimination’ quotas has led to tokenism and resentment. Could the same thing happen again as Europe seeks to advance its diversity agenda? Yes, but only because some male-dominated boards will continue to be as sullen and unimaginative in complying with a quota as they've been with gender diversity in general.

If this is the case, then expect an avalanche of sensational press concerning men passed over for promotion, the failure of women to measure up in the boardroom and any other manner of story aimed at damning this well-intentioned modernisation of corporate governance.

However, more enlightened companies could choose to take this legislation as an opportunity to actively discover and nurture the talented women in their ranks. The only question then will be how do we develop and support them? One thing is clear, and this is where the discomfort arises: women have different development needs.

In a male-dominated workplace culture, all of the social signals, the strictures of presenteeism, even advertising and press commentary serve to reinforce a belief amongst women that if they choose to have a family they'll never make it to the top. Indeed, most men regard the law that entitles women to return to their previous roles as giving them some sort of undeserved dispensation for having the nerve to perpetuate the human race, as if they'd stepped out of the queue for ages and were let back in. Even worse, they’re perceived as having abandoned ship, as having let the team down.

Do we appreciate what a stupid way of looking at talent this is?

It's crazy and has to stop. Women are every bit as capable as men, at every stage of their lives, and if it comes to it they're just as prepared to do a sixty-hour week, though maybe not in the old office-hour time frame that suits people who don't have to choose between parenting and a career.

I can tell you for a fact that many women wishing to maintain a career after having a family must overcome the enormous guilt they carry for wanting more than motherhood in the first place. The belief deep down that they are also somehow a failure as a mother is also reinforced in the workplace by the intense emotional conflict sparked by a call from the nursery when a child is sick, stoked by the smug ‘tut tuts’ and shaking heads when she has to leave to respond.

In the absence of a properly constructed support culture, talented women often succumb to the pressures of an inflexible workplace and intolerant male colleagues, leading to a drain on the talent pool as they veer off into the (typically more flexible) SME sector or start their own businesses.

This is how a government spokesman hilariously explained why women don't seem to grab on to senior business roles the way men do. (He was telling HR Magazine why he thought a quota was a bad idea.):

“Evidence suggests women often have a lack of confidence or a lower perception of their own skills and they sometimes find it difficult to gain the necessary skills and experience to operate at board level.”

Now I wonder why that is?

Yet it needn’t be like this. There are two areas enlightened companies should focus on. The first is a quick win: start nurturing individual, talented women, right now. Traditional, training-based development programmes aimed at mixed management audiences don't tackle deeply male-biased cultures or bolster the confidence of talented women who want to rise through the ranks and have a family. These programmes are products of the dominant culture, after all.

Okay, so you can't change an organisational culture overnight. However, almost overnight, you can have talented women articulating new visions of what they have to offer, throwing off defeating guilt and negative messages, and charting paths to success for themselves and their organisations. These individuals become beacons and are the most effective change agents we know.

Once an organisation has identified the women they want to develop, individual executive coaching support is one of the fastest ways to help them take charge of their career trajectory, their developmental needs and also to prepare for the shifts in their personal operating models that can enable them to accommodate family and career.

We've seen it work. We have extensive experience coaching senior businesswomen, including finalists for the Veuve Cliquot Business Woman of the Year Award. Women can be blinded by the women-unfriendly cultures they work within and don’t know the questions to ask of themselves, and here Coaching is very effective for helping to define courses of action, especially prior to taking maternity leave.

The second area that organisations can focus on is tackling the whole issue of presenteeism. With the radical changes to working practices that distributed teams, collaborative working and Internet and mobile communications are heralding, it is possible for a woman to contribute fully and still be a parent. What needs to change is the male-dominated attitude that being present is what is measured, rather than output.

Can organisations make this a reality? Yes, but not in an ad-hoc way. Organisations labouring under the traditional culture of ‘command and control’ are reinforcing the need to be seen to be present. Making the decision to develop more of a coaching culture within the organisation, which errs towards enquiry rather than assumption, has not only been shown to drive productivity and engagement across the business but also can make alternative working practices more acceptable.

What’s at stake here isn’t about political correctness. It's about talent. Limiting your precious talent pool to fifty per cent of the population is bad for your business. Indeed, research from Credit Suisse Research Institute* has showed that companies with women on the board have outperformed those without women on the board by 26% over the past six years. Good companies get this, and all the fuss about quotas will just be background noise as they go about building talented leadership teams.

A quota could make companies ask tough questions about their women-unfriendly cultures and actively seek out and nurture women with talent. They've never had to do that before, which is why the growth of board diversity has been slow, and why any gains are vulnerable. By boldly embracing the European legislation the UK could set the pace of change in diversity.

Get in touch to find out how your business could reflect diversity and maximise talent management. Come on UK plc, it’s time to ‘man up’ and do it right.

Kind regards

Laura Ashley-Timms - Director of Coaching