Affirmative action

Sasha Galbraith is a US-based consultant specialising in organisational design and promoting diversity in executive management. I spoke to her earlier this week.

Why has women’s participation at board level in US and Europe stalled?

Sasha Galbraith: Partly it’s just that there is slow turnover in board composition, so it takes a long time for a gradual increase in women’s directorships to affect the ratios. But it’s also true that in analysing a new directorship, a chairman will typically think in terms of the least risk. “Who have we had before? Where did they come from? What did they look like?” You’re never going to get fired for putting in a competent man who’s demonstrated he can run a company – it’s like the adage, “No one ever got fired for buying IBM.”

It is sometimes said there are not enough women with business line experience. Is that true in your experience?

SG: It can be, because women are penalised early in their careers. I was recently consulting for a large construction company. To get to the C-suite, the chief executive said you had to have three things: experience in hydrocarbons, in running a construction site and in engineering. He had female engineers with hydrocarbons experience, but since the company had never appointed a woman to run a construction site, no women were going to get to the C-suite in that company.

Are you an advocate of quotas?

SG: I used to be avidly against quotas, but now I believe that without a kick in the pants, it’s just not going to happen. I now think affirmative action is a must, whether that’s via weighted search strategies or via investor pressure. Having said that, quotas will never happen in the US.

Do women have the appetite to run multinational companies?

SG: Some of the territory that comes with the very biggest jobs is not attractive to many women – the corporate politics, being “on” 24/7. Women are less motivated, too, by factors such as money and fame.

There’s also the issue of home life. Lucy Kellaway has written about the fact that alpha women who are super-successful are often married to a stay-at-home husband. Barbara Kux [head of supply chain management and chief sustainability officer at Siemens] is married to an artist; Carly Fiorina [the former chief executive of Hewlett-Packard] has a stay-at-home man. But that isn’t the answer for everyone.

What about diversity departments – are they helping at all?

SG: I hate diversity departments. Women are 50 per cent of the population and they really don’t need to be treated as some kind of oddball thing. Departments focused on diversity show up a mentality that you have to fix the woman rather than fixing the man, which is really where the problem lies.

So is it all doom and gloom?

SG: Not at all. Some companies are doing a great job: the Bank of Montreal and Deloitte, for example. Deloitte has pioneered an entirely different way of managing careers whereby you are not penalised, say, for working part-time. You can put your foot on the gas or take it off during the course of your career, depending on what else is happening in your life. There are plenty of companies refusing to succumb to stereotypes and creating new notions of fairness. Flexibility doesn’t just benefit women – it also generates better performance from everyone.

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