Gender Inequality

Seven reasons your board may be more sexist than you think

Laura Liswood
Secretary-General, Council of Women World Leaders
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Gender Inequality

The debate about getting more women on boards often focuses on why doing so creates a better, more profitable, more competitive company, with research from the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2014, by Catalyst, EY and other organizations all providing evidence. The question of why boards are not more gender balanced in the first place, however, could use further reflection and more granular observations.

For example, if I were chairman of a board, my job would be to ensure that the best decisions emerge from board deliberations. And how do I get the best from the board of directors? It might be useful to look at some of the dynamics of the board room through a gendered lens (I would also add that it might be useful to look at it through the lens of anyone considered an outsider).

I would recommend the board chair consider some of the following:

  1.  Who comes to the board meetings fully prepared, having read all material in advance?
  2.  Who among my board tends to focus on the shareholder impact of board decisions and who might put emphasis on all stakeholders, including employees, communities, the environment, and the families that are personally affected by decisions to lay off employees?
  3.  Who discusses the short-term impact of board decisions and who might focus more on the long-term impact?
  4.  Who will ask questions, particularly ones that are not immediately obvious? (Most marketers still smile when they remember that Ford did not consult a single Spanish-speaking person before introducing the “NOVA”car in Mexico – which translates to “NO GO”.)
  5.  Who in general gets “heard”, which means their comments, suggestions or critiques are picked up and affirmed by others rather than ignored, dismissed, minimized or even initially ignored but then repeated by someone in the dominant group? (Harvard Business School found that professors were more likely to write down and refer back to a comment made by a male student than a female student.)
  6.  Does everyone get included in even informal board events – the pre-board dinner, the nightclub or country club gathering – where issues may be raised and even decided on?
  7.  Do I as board chair seek quick closure on board-related discussions and debates because conflict feels like it creates tension and division? (Katherine Phillips of Columbia University has found that homogeneous groups don’t come to better solutions – they just think they do. Heterogeneous groups come to better solutions – they just don’t realize it.  Diversity creates conflict but if managed well, leads to better decisions.)

A board chair who is truly aware of the governance processes and board dynamics might begin to see patterns. They might discover that some of the women on the board have a tendency to process things in a slightly different way to the men. Of course, not all men or women behave in distinct ways, but the cohorts will probably behave in ways that, if properly managed, can lead to better results for the organization. It might make it even clearer why it is important to have more women on their board of directors.

Author: Laura Liswood, Secretary General, Council of Women World Leaders

Image: Swiss Economy Minister Johann Schneider-Ammann (L) welcomes participants before a round table talk in Bern August 10, 2011.REUTERS/Pascal Lauener

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Gender InequalityFinancial and Monetary Systems
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