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The Femme Factor


A report has revealed that UK businesses are falling behind the times by not promoting women to more directorial roles. Wanda Goldwag offers her advice on how our working environment needs to change.

When Kathryn Bigelow recently became the first woman to win an Oscar as best Director, UK politicians including prime minister Gordon Brown, have been saying that private-sector companies should have to tell us all about the progress they're making in promoting women to senior executive and non-executive positions. As with the Oscars it is clear that at the very top of the FTSE 100 women remain very rare with only 10% of their directors being women.

The Report

The World Economic Forum has recently produced a report based on a survey of 600 of the heads of Human Resources at the world's largest employers across 16 industries in 20 countries. The report showed that women are still failing to break into senior management or onto the board, which they said was a serious waste of talent.

What is not so well researched is what is happening in small to medium businesses – I think there is a great deal of evidence that women who see their path blocked in major businesses either in executive or non executive roles are focusing their talents and energies into running their own businesses or in being a major contributor in medium businesses.

As one woman director recently said to me; “in a smaller business there is nowhere to hide, when you succeed it is obvious and no man can pretend that it was his work that mattered.”

Why women thrive

SME’s also often have by necessity, a need to be closer to their customers, less combative in their relationships with 3rd parties and more willing to provide bespoke services. In other words they often need less testosterone and more people skills which is why some women thrive in those environments.

SMEs in the UK and small budget films such as Kathryn’s have one thing in common; they both contribute significant energy and dynamism to their respective industries. Kathryn and her film have been recognised for their outstanding work in their field, now it is time to recognise and applaud many other women in the UK business sectors for their outstanding contributions. This recognition should pave the way towards giving even more of the most talented and able business women the opportunity to hold director level positions in wider range of companies including our very largest.

New developments abroad

In Norway the need for women directors has been acknowledged and it is now a legal requirement that 40% of the Board of Directors of the major companies listed on the Norwegian Bourse must be women. Spain has also set a target that companies need to increase the share of women directors to 40% by 2015.

In the UK we have always steered well clear of these sorts of quotas and I think they can do harm; but what is clear is that the case for changing the system needs to be made.

Time to move forward

I think the case is straightforward. In the 21st Century whether your senior team or board of directors contains women is becoming ever more crucial not just because of social policy but because all the evidence is that diverse businesses (and what modern business is not?), need directors who themselves have diverse backgrounds.

This is because human beings bring to any problem or decision a series of tools and experiences that they have available to them such as; “How I have seen other people handle this issue”, “How did I do this last time”, “What are our advisors telling us would be a good thing to do”, “I don’t know about this subject in detail but my colleague is very knowledgeable about it so I will vote with her”. Depending on who they are and what they have done in their careers and their own natural styles, they will create a synthesis of all of the above and come to a decision.

If everyone on the board is a white middle class man who is a university graduate, who did a professional job at a series of blue chip companies it is likely that the tools and experiences they will bring to the board will be very similar and may limit the options that are considered.

So any form of diversity be it gender, ethnic origin, work experience or sexual orientation is not simply nice to have but it is actually an essential tool for success and an important defence mechanism for any business needing to make complex judgements.

So how do we go about attracting the widest possible board and senior management?
  • Start with the plan to get a diverse team
  • Ensure that recruitment companies are given comprehensive briefs about team dynamics and what skills and experience the team currently has
  • Don’t just recruit for a specific role such as marketing director, recruit to join the marketing team
  • Understand what the barriers to promotion are for women and other minorities in your company and remove them
  • Don’t use the old boy network to get a director, use a formal recruitment process as robust as the one you would use to find a new managing director
Wanda Goldwag is non-executive chair of True North Human Capital Ltd which helps companies find both the right men and women for senior roles.

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