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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