Directorships – Are women getting the seats but not the power?

Alison Chisnell has been digging into some of the statistics on female board members. The headline figures show some improvement.

[W]omen now make up 15.6% of the boards in FTSE 100 companies, compared to 12.5% last March and a government target of 25% of female directors by 2015. In addition, the number of all-male FTSE 100 boards dropped to 13 from 2010′s figure of 21, and, for the first time, a minority of FTSE 250 companies now have all-male boards.

But, before we all get too excited, she also notes that the majority of these women are in non-executive roles. The powerful executive jobs are still mostly held by men. Perhaps we are seeing a similar pattern to that of Norway where the government compelled firms to have at least one female director by the beginning of 2008.

It is also worth mentioning that there is a similar proliferation of female Non-Execs in Norway, whose government introduced legislation requiring companies to have 40% of female Directors and gave them five years to comply.

You may remember that there was an eleventh hour panic in Norway as firms scrambled to get a woman onto their boards. It is, perhaps, inevitable that the same high-profile women were invited onto boards by a number of different companies. There have been suggestions that something similar is happening here. Cranfield’s recent report points out that, on FTSE 100 boards, only 13 percent of female directors hold more than one directorship. But headhunters Augmentum claimed that much of the recent increase is made up of women with existing directorships. In other words, those nudged into action by the Davies report are doing what the Norwegians did and fishing from the same small pool of ‘suitable’ women.

The pattern across Europe seems to show that, while board representation is increasing, the number of women on a company’s board often stops at one.

There’s almost a “phew factor” in all of this. OK, we’re compliant. We’ve got a woman on the board so we won’t get fined or named and shamed on that ‘firms with no female directors’ list. Job done!

The conversations probably went something like this:

“We’re getting stick from the diversity lot because we haven’t got any women on the board. Get in touch with that Baroness Bufton-Tufton. She’s well-connected and she’d be ideal for us.”

“But boss, she’s already a non-exec at Fotherington Thomas and Morgan Goldensacks.”

“I don’t f**king care! We need a woman on the board pdq. Just get her in here. Now!”

And whatever the equivalent of that is in Norwegian. And German. And French.

OK, I’m being facetious but there is a picture emerging of many firms just trying to tick the box and, if they really must have a female director, then it’s best to get one who is bright and well-connected. Where better to look than on other people’s boards?

Another interesting finding in the Cranfield report is that women directors tend to be younger than their male counterparts. This may also indicate a repeat of a pattern in Norway. As Mimi Berdal, a former corporate lawyer from Oslo, with nine non-executive directorships, points out:

There are younger women who stopped their executive careers to become non-executives.

So, as the demand for female non-executives rose, some women who might otherwise have risen to become senior managers chose instead to become serial non-execs.

We don’t have enough data in the UK yet to know either something similar is happening here but, based on anecdotal evidence, I wouldn’t be surprised if it did. A couple of my female friends in their early 40s are planning to do just that; build portfolio careers which include a couple of non-exec roles, rather than fight their way up to the executive team. As one of them said to me, as a non exec she can be valued for her expertise and general business savvy, while not having to play the game of corporate power politics.

We already know that a lot of women quit the corporate world in mid-career. Could it be that non-exec directorships give some of them a way of staying in the game without all the corporate crap that goes with it? It could also be that the hours are easier to work around and that 40-something women might go for non-exec directorships for the same reasons that they go for part-time jobs close to home.

It’s a situation that may not improve much over the coming years. Research by headhunters Norman Broadbent suggests that the female director pipeline is running dry. There are simply not enough women in roles just below director level to enable companies to meet the targets in the Davies report. Which is probably because so many women choose to quit the corporate world.

The factors that are leading women to consider serial non-exec roles are, then, the same ones that are reducing the number of potential female executive directors. The increase in the number of female directors is therefore likely to continue to be at the non-exec rather than the exec level. For the time being, non-exec roles just suit a lot of women better.

A recent European Commission report, Women in economic decision making bemoans, as its title suggests, the lack of women in economic decision-making throughout Europe. The advancement of women in senior corporate roles has, it concludes, been very slow and is likely to remain so for some years.

None of this is to detract from the achievements of those women who have made it onto boards and the fact that they are there at all is progress. But, for now, and for the foreseeable future, most of the real corporate power in Europe will still be wielded by men.

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4 Responses to Directorships – Are women getting the seats but not the power?

  1. Pingback: Directorships – Are women getting the seats but not the power? - Rick - Member Blogs - HR Blogs - HR Space from Personnel Today and Xpert HR

  2. Very interesting: a question and a comment.

    Is the graph showing more than 1/more than 3 for all companies or only plcs, or only FTSE100? If the first of those, then I suspect that a lot of the >3 might be pretty small so-called lifestyle companies, which are really important but not necessarily ‘powerful’.

    The various reasons why so many women are not prepared to play the corporate game are another cause (alongside economic meltdown and runaway climate change) to think that the game should be declared over. The search needs to be for new rules (rather than simply new faces prepared to play by the old ones.)

  3. Dipper says:

    … and they are on boards often as HR directors, so they don’t really count.

  4. Bina says:

    Perhaps its because ‘dishonesty’ (AKA ‘politicking’) is not tolerated in women. Women can count beans as well as any man. Women can strategise as well as any man. The trouble is that women ‘co-operate’ for the common good. Men ‘co-operate’ for personal gain.

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