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Boardroom failure must not foster gender bias!


Women deserve to reach the top of corporations and flourish as leaders. But they must also fail. Harsh you might think, so let me explain why.

The gender topic dominates the diversity agenda greater than any other, and rightly so. There is a deficiency in corporate leadership which needs drastic attention to balance the gender mix at the top of companies; large and small. There are many compelling arguments, backed by strong data, as to why women must now achieve this representation in the boardroom and on executive committees. Equally though, there are many structural and systemic reasons why they struggle to climb to this level in the first place. Neither of which am I greatly concerned to illustrate in this article. They are well rehearsed, widely written about and vociferously debated.

As an advocate of gender diversity, I have frequently taken to the pen to promote ideas and concepts which might nudge opinion in favour of more diverse boardrooms. This trickle of musings has emanated from my broader participation in some industry committees which specifically address the issue of gender diversity. From having these exposures I can confidently state that the overwhelming majority of people, male and female, wish to ensure women achieve on merit, and not based on some arbitrary quota system. Yet, the threat of quotas, coupled with a real philosophical swing in attitudes across many sectors, have seemingly helped to stimulate more proactivity in addressing this deficiency.

It is certainly evident at an executive recruitment level that there are more frequent pro-diversity attitudes expressed by clients. These attitudes have led to progressive steps in some pharmaceutical companies (my own sector), like that of Merck Serono. In writing a recent article about the significant achievement of Merck Serono in building such a highly qualified executive team including so many women, I reflected on just how far we have come to even compliment such diversity. However, within two weeks of writing it, Dr. Annalisa Jenkins, Merck Serono’s then Head of R&D, was leaving the company. This got me thinking back to an article previously published on FTSE Female bosses and the inevitable rotation at the top of companies, and how it’s just part of the natural ebb and flow of executive life.

In the executive search business, currently, there is a considerable amount of consultation and debate going on about how executive search best practice must change and work to new voluntary codes of conduct to achieve greater statistical representation of females on executive teams. But for gender diversity to be truly sustainable, women must achieve their office based on merit, albeit within a talent system which functions fairly for this merit to be recognised.

However, once women are in-situ, the rigours of executive life must be comparable to their male counterparts if we’re to achieve an equitable environment. Implicit, therefore, is that women must be subject to the very same performance criteria and political pressures which drive the dynamics of the boardroom. To create an artificial pedestal that somehow protects women simply because they made it this far, would serve to undermine the individual person and the system of merit on which their achievement was predicated.

In a recent survey published by Strategy& (formerly Booz and Co.), the company examined the 2500 largest public companies by market value and the study reveals a statistical bias. Over the past 10 years, fewer than 3 in 10 male chief executives were ousted. When it came to female CEOs, nearly 2 in 5 were forced out. The company conducting the research suggest two key reasons for the findings:

  • The first being that due to political pressures and cultures, companies have responded to appoint female CEOs, thereby taking the bold choice. Implied in this suggested reason is that the women executives were appointed without adequate competencies. In other words, the perceived riskier choice didn’t pay off.
  • The second perhaps comes as little surprise to any of us. The report asserts that boardrooms lack adequate diversity and remain dominated by males, thereby not perhaps offering the degree of support that female CEOs, many of which are first-time CEOs, require. Ultimately they succumb to the difficult hostility.

This highlights important considerations for companies. Where companies are willing to take positive and proactive steps to appoint women CEOs, and indeed other women executives, hiring based on creditable experience plays a vital role in sustainable diversity. Also, the mentality and behaviours of company boards have to shift to create more receptive environments capable of accommodating female participation. A women’s success in the boardroom, or among the executive ranks, should not hinge on her ability to act more like men. Diversity is the first step, but inclusion is the ultimate goal. If you are to have a diverse leadership, it needs to be fully inclusive.

Women bring their own value to boardrooms and their participation leads to better business. Their achievement though has to be real, not artificial, so women must succeed and fail in the same way as men. The boardroom needs to strive for both a democratic and meritocratic approach to appointments, applying the same rules and standards to men and women. Only then will sustainable diversity be possible.

Published 2015. 


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