Women on boards: how to improve supply and demand

As companies strive to meet targets – and, in a few countries, mandatory quotas – for women on corporate boards, one of the hardest myths to dispel is the lack of supply.

While consultations for Lord Davies’s report on UK boardroom balance were under way, one (male) headhunter told me – off the record, naturally – that there simply were not enough qualified women in the pipeline. He is not alone in his view. Yet disproving it is hard while women face the catch-22 that a lack of boardroom experience disqualifies them from gaining boardroom experience.

Christine Lagarde, French finance minister, told the FT Women at the Top conference last year that she carried a list of highly qualified women around with her, specifically to silence those who complain about a scarcity of talented female executives.

But female executives also have to push themselves forward, as several speakers pointed out this week at a sold-out seminar hosted by the FT Non-Executive Directors’ Club.

Virginia Bottomley, former British health minister and chairwoman of the board and CEO practice of Odgers Berndtson, the headhunter, underlined the need for women to present themselves for unpaid board opportunities – at charities, hospitals and universities, for example – and, once on corporate boards, to speak out.

She drew a parallel between the problems afflicting British boardrooms and those emphasised by the recent review of the way social workers tackle potential child abuse and neglect.

“The issues around child protection are the same as around corporate boards,” she said. Directors must show scepticism, be ready to question assumptions and act as “critical friends” of the company. “In a boardroom, it’s very hard to challenge the chief executive,” she added, urging women to shed their natural diffidence.

Sir Roger Carr, chairman of Centrica and a campaigner for better boardroom balance, pointed out that it was partly up to fellow chairmen to create demand for women on boards. “Grudging tokenism – which is still around in some places – is dangerous, unhealthy and very damaging,” he said.

But he said no amount of encouragement from the top would change the shape of boards if good female candidates did not present themselves: “Like all team games, you do need talent,” he said. “But if you don’t turn up, you can’t be picked.”


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The 'Women at the Top' blog is part of a series of online and print publications that focuses on women's achievements in business. With up-to-date news and incisive analysis, the blog will provoke discussion on the role of the world's most prominent businesswomen. www.ft.com/womenblog

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About our bloggers

Liz Bolshaw

Liz Bolshaw is a business journalist and editor. She has been a successful book publisher, online editor, magazine editor and publisher.

She was launch editor of the Europe-wide online community Entrepreneur Country, has published magazines for PwC, 3i, dunhill and Bafta, and launched The Sharp Edge, a magazine for and about entrepreneurs, with Duncan Bannatyne. She is a regular contributor to Thomson Reuters’ Venture Capital Journal.

Her last project for the Financial Times was as editor of the paper’s Business Education magazine.

Rebecca Knight

Rebecca Knight is a freelance journalist based in Boston. She writes regularly for the FT on business education, entrepreneurship, and management.

Andrew Hill

Andrew Hill is an associate editor and the management editor of the FT. He was City editor of the FT and editor of the daily Lombard column on British business and finance from September 2006 to December 2010.

He was the FT’s financial editor from June 2005 to September 2006, with overall responsibility for coverage of companies and markets. Before becoming financial editor, he was the FT’s comment & analysis editor, in charge of the paper’s opinion and features pages.

From 1999 to 2003, he was the FT’s New York bureau chief. He joined the FT in 1988 and has also worked as foreign news editor, UK companies reporter and correspondent in Brussels and Milan.

Pino Bethencourt

Pino Bethencourt is a professor and leadership expert at IE Business School in Madrid. She is also an author and executive coach.

Lynda Gratton

Lynda Gratton is professor of management practice at London Business School.

Linda Tarr-Whelan

Linda Tarr-Whelan, former ambassador to the UN commission on the status of women, is a Demos distinguished senior fellow.