Women on boards – ‘same old, same old’ suggestions from Davies Report

What a missed opportunity – again.   Perhaps this awful sense of deja vu comes with age, but reading the recommendations – and commentators’ responses – makes me wonder whether the last 30 years ever happened.

If you’ve missed it, Lord Davies of Abersoch (nice beaches, btw) conducted an Independent Review into Women on Boards.   He found – perhaps unsurprisingly, given the amount of research, evidence and campaigning that has been done in the last 30 years – that there aren’t very many of them.  And in 50% of FTSE 250 companies there are NO WOMEN AT ALL on the Board.

His response to this travesty?  “…companies should set targets for 2013 and 2015 to ensure that more talented and gifted women can get into the top jobs in companies across the UK.”  Oh good.  Companies (who, de facto, haven’t yet done a very good job at self-regulation) have to ‘set targets’…   Furthermore, he “also calls on chairmen to announce these goals in the next six months and Chief Executives to review the percentage of women they aim to have on their Executive Committees in 2013 and 2015.”  Well that’s telling them!  Set a target for several years hence and then announce it.  That always works.  And finally, the big sting. “…companies should fully disclose the number of women sitting on their boards and working in their organisations as a whole, to drive up the numbers of women with top jobs in business”.    Oh puhleeze!

We know all this already!  We know exactly how many women work in these companies and we know how many sit on the Executive Teams and on the Boards.  We already know this thanks to all the work done by the likes of the Equalities Commission, The Fawcett Society and even the regular reviews in the broadsheets about the makeup of Boards.  And so far, apparently, the ensuing shame and humiliation has not yet motivated them to do anything to redress this imbalance.

But what drives me to the brink of despair is the general acceptance of this approach at best (see the BIS press release) – and, at worst, the tone of the responses along the lines of “…c’mon ladies! We don’t need targets! Let’s get there on our own merits!”  or “…we don’t want boards dumbed down by recruiting women who aren’t up to it.”   I’m not making this up – see FT letters page.

So, one more time:

1.  The possession of a penis and 40 years experience in a City Firm Old Boys Network does not make you a good Board member.  It makes you a member of a conforming, compliant minority with vested interests and prone to groupthink.

2.  Boards choose people who look like them.  The ‘halo effect’ means that they value the qualities and styles in others that they exhibit themselves.  They rarely seek out and recruit difference, diversity or challenge, even though there is more than enough evidence to support the value of ‘requisite variety’ in good decision making.  ‘Fitting in’ is way more important in recruitment choices than seeking out fresh or different thinking.

3.  Women don’t apply to become Board members because they mostly don’t have time for all the rigmarole and hooplah that goes with it.  They are rightly sceptical about all the game playing that goes on and prefer to focus on more practical contributions. When I chaired a Board and actively sought out women to fill vacancies I’d often hear a sighed “But does all that effort really make a difference?  Isn’t it just all about set pieces and status…?”

4.  We’ve been waiting 30 years for organisations to make these changes themselves.  But like turkeys voting for Christmas, Boards have shown themselves to be incapable of making difficult changes under their own steam.

This IS a political issue.  The quality and effectiveness of scrutiny and decision making in Boards is ALL our business and not just that of individual share holders.  The events of the last few years have shown us, starkly and shockingly, just how important it is to address issues of governance, integrity and accountability at the top of the shop.   Requiring better representation of women on boards would have been a good indication that Government takes this seriously.  This weak, conventional, unchallenging report does not.

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About suepritchard

I live a portfolio life: researcher, writer, consultant, organic/permaculture farmer, single mother of three grown-ups and social activist..... My main work is running SULEiS, a consulting network for building leadership and change capability, inside and outside traditional organisations, to make practical progress on the difficult issues.
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