According to the latest report published by the government this week, the gender ratio of FTSE 100 boards has reached a milestone, with 25% of board members now being women, an achievement credited to the voluntary efforts made by such organisations to actively recruit board members to balance the gender gap. Whilst this number represents a significant increase over the last few years (from 12.5% in 2011), we shouldn’t be rushing to extol the virtues of gender quotas, tick the diversity box as a fait accompli and sit down to a celebratory cup of tea just yet.
Whilst Lord Davies’ report calls for an extension of these voluntary quotas, playing the numbers game can only hope to answer part of the problem. There seem to be two big issues that it is currently failing to address:
- The Cult of Board Culture– The latest US Republican debate provided a perfect example of what can happen when a homogenous (on the face of it at least) group of powerful men (and one woman) come together to argue their opinion and establish their superiority as potential future leaders of the free world. The irony of it was that the more they tried to compete for the airtime to demonstrate their leadership prowess, the more I feared that any of them would ever find themselves in the ultimate position of power. One of the most common complaints we hear from women in senior and executive leadership roles is not so much the homogeneity of gender but the absolute homogeneity of leadership, negotiating and conflict styles that permeate the environment within the walls of the boardroom and govern the unspoken code of conduct at that most exclusive of tables. The all-powerful nature of such a culture means that many feel the need to ‘assimilate to survive’. This competitive, fist banging, who-can-shout-louder way of operating can mean some women find it very challenging to find an authentic way to integrate without losing themselves or their voice and we often hear of women who upon achieving the most senior positions come under fire for becoming too ‘Alpha’. I’ve even heard it said that this uncomfortable paradox is putting some women off aspiring to Board-level positions – a sad fact which no amount of quotas can fix! Many claim that more women on the board will be the automatic panacea to transform this culture into something much more inclusive and effective… I’m not so confident.
- Culture of Difference– It seems rightly uncontested that organisational diversity has a direct, transformative impact on the effectiveness and success of teams and leaders by encouraging and facilitating difference and embracing the creative conflict that this difference can generate resulting in the generation new ideas and the improvement of established ways of working. This is more than just a nice to have. Without this diversity we expose ourselves to homogenised ‘group think’ and significantly a higher risk of corporate scandal and even crime due to an inability of an organisation to effectively criticise, hold itself accountable or even see the issues as they arise. I wonder if the latest Volkswagen emissions scandal would have been allowed to happen if this culture of difference had existed amongst its senior leaders? Whilst it might have helped, I’m not sure a gender quota of 25% women would have been quite enough alone to prevent a global organisation turning a blind eye to its own decisions and actions. Gender is a crucial area to consider, but its only one aspect of human difference; an easy visible line to draw and make tangible through measurements and quotas. If we genuinely want to see organisational diversity that reflects the diversity of British society then we need to look beyond the obvious to embrace all aspects of difference, something which quotas are unlikely to achieve.
In summary, quotas are proving to be an important tool on the road to achieving organisational diversity but they are not the magic bullet people might be looking for or even the token activity they might be hoping to hide behind. If we want real, positive diversity in our executive teams, we also need to empower those in leadership roles at every level to embrace and encourage a culture of constructively challenging the norms, actively listening to those singing a different tune rather than shouting to be the loudest, and to shed the unshakeable habit of seeing conflict as something to be feared and avoided at all costs.
These are my thoughts…I’d love to hear yours.
Kathryn Bradley is a Programme and Project Manager at CEDR – the Centre for Effective Dispute Resolution. CEDR is the UK’s largest provider of mediation training and services. www.cedr.com