Gender equality: running to stand still?December 2015
2015 was the year Hillary Clinton declared she was running for president in the US; it was also the year that the US fell to 28th place in the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap list (falling out of the top 20 for the first time). And in the UK - currently ranked at 18th in the same list – the level of equality debate led to the setting up of a new political party, the Women’s Equality Party, campaigning for gender equality to the benefit of all.
It’s constantly a state of swings and roundabouts. The UK and the FTSE 100 have seen progress in eliminating all-male boards, according to Lord Davies final report on the number of women on boards, yet as Laura Carstensen, EHRC Commissioner, noted: “It’s telling that women are still predominantly recruited to non-executive director roles rather than as executive directors at Britain’s biggest companies. Moreover, unlocking talent and economic potential by increasing female board membership shouldn’t just be limited to FTSE100 companies.”
Of course, diversity at the top shouldn’t just focus on meeting the numbers but also making the numbers count. Shainaz Firfiray, assistant professor of HR & Organisation at Warwick Business School points out that it is important for corporations to create the right environment so as to reap the benefits of gender-diverse boards.
“When companies are coerced into appointing women on boards, there is a risk that female directors will continue to face gender-related obstacles. Very often women who are appointed to boards to meet quota requirements have claimed that they are stigmatised and it is common for their ideas to be ignored or swept aside.
“Occasionally, male directors promote a hostile board environment by failing to consider the suggestions of female directors or treat them with respectful collegiality. If gender-diverse boards are not properly managed, they may not only create distrust and dissatisfaction but fail to benefit from uncommon or minority voices, resulting in lower levels of innovation and competitiveness.
Firfiray maintains that it may not be enough for companies to simply appoint women to board positions in response to external pressures. Rather they should ensure that the appointment of female directors is also having a meaningful impact on the business.
“Research evidence suggests that women bring a novel set of perspectives to the boardroom and have a unique style of engagement which focuses on seeking the opinions of others and attempting to reach a consensus. This can facilitate better boardroom dialogue and decision-making.
“While significant progress has been made over the last few years to help women advance to senior ranks within business, the marginalisation of women in the business world is still a problem that needs to be addressed. Prior research has shown that women who succeed in typically male tasks such as leadership positions are more disliked and derogated, implying that women confront obstacles in work settings that are not encountered by men to the same degree.”
She’s right. Broadening the composition of corporate boards can serve business interests as it helps in expanding perspectives at the top and recognising the needs of diverse stakeholders. However, as Firfiray notes, while most corporations realise the value of including directors with different types of educational or professional expertise, they often still neglect the importance of gender diversity.
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