‘I don’t think women fit comfortably into the board environment’… bullsh*t

I should start this blog by saying a bloody big bravo (or rather brava) to the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy for yesterday publishing a list of the worst explanations they received from FTSE 350 CEOs and Chairs for not having more women on their boards and calling bullsh*t on their excuses.

The gems that made the list included ‘I don’t think women fit comfortably into the board environment’,‘ we have one woman already on the board, so we are done – it is someone else’s turn’ and ‘the issues covered (by the board) are extremely complex’.

In case you were wondering whether we’d finally succeeded in time travel back to the dark ages, no, its still 2018. And yes, I did say FTSE 350 CEOs and Chairs. And no to the owner of the last comment, women’s brain are not hard wired to be less capable than men’s. My various WhatsApp groups and Twitter timeline were quite rightly full of rage, a proud, loud and well-justified ‘angry feminist’ response.

Last week, I spoke at a breakfast hosted by the tech recruitment firm Harvey Nash, looking at how we get more senior women into IT positions. Their recent CIO survey found that only 9% of CIOs are women and at the current rate of progress it will be 2060 before parity is achieved….

There are similar themes in other studies; my charity, Young Women’s Trust, published a report last year on young women and apprenticeships which said that there are 25 men for every young woman starting an apprenticeship in engineering, starting a pay gap (women on apprenticeships earn £6.67 an hour compared to £7.25 for men) that will follow them through their career.A survey they ran of 800 HR decision-makers was just as depressing. 1 in 5 don’t think the gender pay gap will ever be closed, and that there will never be as many female business leaders as men.

I won’t cover everything we talked about in this blog, as I think there are a couple of follow ups I’d like to write, including one around pay, but in preparation for the breakfast for the meeting I spoke to a number of women I have worked with, in a range of roles, to ask them about their professional experiences of any gender differences.

Here’s a selection of the responses I received.

“I feel like women are less likely to be rewarded for their work, and we need to work even harder to prove our worth.”

“Every day my tutor, lecturers, others on the course, told me their was no place for women in engineering.”

“I often feel like that sketch in the fast show where the lady says what the solution is and the men only listen to it when one of the guys says the solution.”

“More senior females would help. If I go to an (industry) event even though its getting better it is still heavily male”

The themes were consistent and common. Of course, its not all doom and gloom. Women have made incredible progress in a whole host of ways, and as an example, I’m fortunate to work in a FTSE 350 organisation full of female senior leaders who role model to other women that it is possible. I was so impressed by the diversity and exceptional calibre of the women CIOs / Tech leaders working across major FTSEs who attended the breakfast – in fact so much so that I opened my speech by admitting I had been struck with complete imposter syndrome when I read who was coming!

But. There’s still a big but. Diversity, including but not limited exclusively to gender, remains a major issue and comments like those quoted above highlight just how entrenched some frankly extremely prejudicial views are, all the way to the top.

I’m not personally a fan of quotas on boards as I think they risk the wrong behaviour and outcomes which can unintentionally damage women. I know of examples of very inappropriate candidates being put forward by recruiters just because they are women (though perhaps we should just call out rubbish recruiters). But whether you favour that solution or not as one way of tackling gender diversity in business, I dare anyone to factually and publicly challenge whether having more representative boards is a bad thing. In addition to the wealth of research that shows they are good for the business itself, it’s very important for women coming up the ranks to see other women in public roles of power and leadership.

P.S. Whilst I respect that BEIS needed to protect their anonymity, I do wish I knew which companies were behind those comments so I could ensure firstly that I never accept a job under the current leadership, and secondly, boycott buying their products or services.

P.P.S. The picture for this was taken at an amazing Egon Zehnder event for International Women’s Day last year called ‘Leaders and Daughters’ which my mum and I spoke at. Felt very appropriate.

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