Women in the Board Room

(Firs published 9 March 2011)

Last month the UK Employers’ Federation, the CBI, called for more proactive steps to redress the gender imbalance in Board Rooms.  A report from Cranfield University had found that only 12.5% of Board positions in the UK are held by females and that there had been little change in this proportion over recent years.   To its credit, the CBI argued that, with women accounting for half the population and making up just under half of the workforce, their continuing under representation at Board level was unacceptable.  Indeed, there is strong evidence to suggest that companies with more diverse Boards tend to perform better than others.  Instinctively we can appreciate how a more diverse top team, involving different perspectives, attitudes and experiences is likely to make for better, more robust, decision-making.

But the CBI’s proposal, that UK listed companies should be required to achieve internally set targets for female Board participation, is too simplistic a response to a complex issue.   Enforcement through legislation only aggravates the ‘political correctness gone mad’ lobby – who would argue that, in bending over backwards for women, we end up with female executives who achieve their senior positions not through merit, but solely because of their gender.   In fact targets and quotas for achieving diversity at the top may redress the gender imbalance but such measures are unlikely to change attitudes or workplace practices that lead to inequality in the first place.  The reality is that there are many reasons why women are in the minority at the top and each reason requires a particular and different response.

As Chief Executive of the Association of MBAs I became particularly interested in understanding why there were so few women MBA students.   Women account for between just 25-30% of students taking MBA courses anywhere in the world and this figure hasn’t changed much in the last 10 years.  My investigations and research into the issue failed to establish a single explanation for the low number of women MBAs.   But there is evidence to support a fascinating range of possible causes:

  • MBA students tend to be in their late 20s and early 30s – this is not an ideal time for women to commit to such a demanding and rigorous course as many are likely to be having or considering having children at this age;
  • There is a continuing perception that the MBA environment is competitive, macho and hard-nosed – concerned primarily with big city finance and number crunching.   Although this perception no longer reflects the reality,  many women are put off by this impression of MBA study and the business school environment;
  • It appears that, when it comes to sponsoring staff to undertake MBA study, employers tend to favour male employees over females.  Prejudice may be at play here but there are other factors including the way in which women view their own self-development and their apparent lack of assertiveness (relative to men) when it comes to seeking support for their advancement at work;
  • There are very few high profile female role models at the top –  in business or in business schools – thus reinforcing the perception that women have no place or little chance of success in leadership or at an executive level in business.

I could go on.  There are further issues relating to the lack of confidence that some women have in their own ability and potential.   The point is that the many and varied reasons behind the low number of women MBAs  also tell us something about the under representation of women in the  Board Room.

Telling employers to simply appoint more women Board members is not the answer.   Helping employers to recognise the skills women bring to business and their value in the workplace; working with companies to improve the recruitment, development and support given to female employees, is likely to be a better solution in the long run.

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3 Responses to “Women in the Board Room”

  1. Sharon Eden says:

    Interestingly, reading The Female Brand, I warmed
    to the suggestion that many women just don’t want
    to have a Board Room life or the committment of
    time, energy and passion that organisational leadership
    demands. And that’s because they value their time
    with family, friends and out of business pursuits.

    Sounds pretty healthy to me… if that’s your choice!

  2. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Sharon Eden and others. Sharon Eden said: RT @jeanettepurcell: Just posted a new blog. Why so few women in the Boardroom? http://bit.ly/f73uZC > Contraversial comment from me? […]

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