How to get more women on Boards - Business Works
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How to get more women on Boards

David Falzani, President, Sainsbury Management Fellowship As a charity that helps to further the careers of professional engineers through business educational bursaries and mentoring, the Sainsbury Management Fellowship (SMF) has a number of women who have been appointed executive and non executive directorships in leading UK companies. Research shows that boards with good gender diversity out-perform by 50% in terms of profit margin and equity than those without gender diversity - a clear argument for having more women on boards.

To mark the second anniversary of Lord Davies’ Report, Women on Boards, which set a target of 25% female representation on boards by 2015, and Cranfield’s report, The Female FTSE Board Report 2013, SMF organised a debate to look at how UK companies can get more women on to boards.

Cranfield’s report shows that whilst there was a hive of activity after Women on Boards was published in March 2011 – when 44% of new FTSE100 appointments and 36% of FTSE250 posts went to women – over the last six months the level of appointments has fallen significantly to 26% and 29% respectively. Our debate entitled The Tipping Points of Women’s Leadership Careers – Is It About Better Planning? explored some of the bottlenecks preventing female board appointments and steps to overcome them.

Helen Pitcher, Chairman at IDDAS, led the discussion among the business leaders who made up the panel. This included three SMFs - Anne Richards, Chief Investment Officer at Aberdeen Asset Management; Nicola Winn, COO Finance Infrastructure, Deutsche Bank and Caroline Cake, Director of 2020 Delivery, plus Jenny Young, Manager of Diversity, Royal Academy of Engineering, Sally Davis, holder of various non-executive posts including at the BBC and James Raby a Trustee of SMF.

Three key themes emerged from the discussion.

Mentors and sponsors: The panel said that role models play a vital role in helping women to envisage their own success. Successful business women allow other women to imagine what they too can achieve. Being mentored by a successful business woman enables an aspiring director to think through career goals and weigh-up different options. A mentor can also explore assumptions and perceptions that lead women to opt-out of new opportunities.

More prominent business women need to come forward as mentors. They need to set aside any concerns or fears about becoming mentors and share their knowledge and experience with other women seeking to mirror their success. Mentors help by challenging self-limiting beliefs – which are often based on inaccurate stereotyping of senior roles and how the job might be done by them, rather than a male predecessor.

The panel also highlighted the need for women to seek a sponsor, in addition to a mentor. A sponsor is someone who recognises the talent and potential of an individual and both supports and champions that individual in their endeavour to secure new senior roles, for example, through referral, endorsement or recommendation.

The second major theme was Confidence. Most women who aspire to boardroom positions have a hunger to achieve at this level and will strive to create and seize opportunities, but the panel felt that some women are held back due to lack of confidence linked to cultural grooming. Subliminal messages that start from childhood work to boost boys’ self-confidence and moderate that of girls and this can follow into adulthood and the work pool. This results in women not putting themselves forward for promotion and even selecting-out of opportunities.

Research into the differences in promotion between men and women shows that huge subliminal bias still exists amongst both genders when promoting staff – men are promoted on potential (32% of men get onto a FTSE board without ever having been on a FTSE board), while women are promoted on past performance. The panel argued that those responsible for promoting staff must kick-against bias and promote men and women on equal criteria.

Helen Pitcher, who has extensive experience developing executives for board roles, pointed out that in her experience, women tend to apply for senior roles only when they have almost 100% of the job specification nailed, whereas men have the confidence to apply even when they do not tick all the boxes. The panel felt that to get more women on boards in a sustainable way, women – and employers - must eliminate limiting beliefs about women’s capability to do the top jobs. Mentoring, skills and personal impact training can build confidence and minimise self-doubt.

The panellists who had worked in the USA commented on the marked difference between the aspirations for women in America compared to the UK. They felt that America has much higher expectations for women reaching senior posts, which the UK should emulate. Women should be encouraged to shake-off concerns about applying for jobs only when they are 100% qualified because skills can be acquired.

The third major barrier the panel identified was the difference between the networks that men and women develop. The panel highlighted the stark difference between the way men and women network; which is so different that women’s approach restricts their chances of being put forward for senior posts. Men invest more time networking in influential circles and have much larger networks than women. They regard networking as an integral part of their job – it’s where they build contacts, share knowledge and acquire new information.

Anne Richards, CIO at Aberdeen Asset Management, said that women network far less than men because many see it as extra-curricular; something that encroaches on personal time so other priorities trump networking. Consequently, women are known by fewer influential people and are less likely to be recommended for unadvertised posts and excluded from head-hunters’ interview lists. To increase their level of exposure, women must treat both traditional and social media networking as legitimate and essential business activities, where they learn, broaden their perspective, build relationships and promote themselves.

It is also important to recognise the value of social media. For example, LinkedIn is a powerful networking tool where women can meet like-minded professionals and promote themselves to the search community, which is using it increasingly to source senior candidates.

Four of the women taking part in the debate are engineers, so the debate concluded with the question of how a technical background helps to overcome barriers or biases to senior appointments. Overall, these women felt that having an engineering background gives them instant credibility with peers – colleagues tend to have immediate confidence in their ability to get things done. Engineering qualifications and experience has taught them how to define and solve problems that arise from constant change, which is a regular feature of business today, not least because of rapidly changing technology. An engineering background has given them the knowledge and perspective to step-back, analyse and produce creative solutions.

The panellists concluded the debate by giving tips on preparing for a board position. Their comments can be viewed here.

For more information on the Sainsbury Management Fellowship, please visit:

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