Beneath the boardroom gender agenda

By Alison Gill, 8th March 2011
Produced for the Crelos Change Master Series event….

Never Achieve Alone: A Celebration of Women helping Women


Women are voting with their stilettos, leaving corporate life in their droves during their most productive years. Men say that there are insufficient women who are competent enough to do the top jobs, women say that there are insufficient men who are prepared to recognise, promote and hire women in to those senior positions. More choice in childcare arrangements and shifting attitudes to women who work has made a small difference but in essence the current state of sexual stalemate, has been in existence for at least twenty years.

The recently published Davies Report and the annual Female FTSE Report provide a more than sufficient business case for why women should be on boards. The Davies Report points out that at the current rate of change it will take seventy years for their to be gender equality on boards in the UK despite that there is substantial evidence that companies with gender diverse boards and top management outperform those who don’t . These report make substantial progress at collating the business case but seem to lack depth with regard to the psychological, emotional and unconscious biases behind the current status quo. Sticking with logical argument and rational statistics is to ignore the very real and human reasons why things aren’t changing.

Like most long and protracted negotiations, where two sides see things through an intractable lens, the arguments have been repeated and debated vigorously but traction for real change remains absent. Women say that this is not a diversity issue, women are 50% of the workforce globally, not a minority to be managed; neither men nor women want quotas because they symbolise failure for both sides, women want to gain a place on merit and men don’t want the indignation of being made to kowtow; businesses with gender equity in the senior ranks are more profitable than those without, cause and effect is not proven although the correlation seems clear. In such a situation tactical progress can be made but what is really needed is a herd-turning strategy in which both sides gain.

Step 1 – Tackle the consequences first

Like any strategy of behavioural change first we must tackle the consequences of not changing. Nicola Walther and Christina Ioannadis in their recently published book "Your loss: How to win back your female talent ”, suggest that businesses need targets, not quotas or ‘percentage of women’ targets, but hard hitting financial and recognition targets. Their research indicates that the cost of loosing women is as much as £15m to the bottom line for every 10,000 employees. This sort of loss doesn’t make sense and at the moment it is a loss that is hidden from the bottom line. Include it in the P/L thereby directly impacting profitability, personal pay and promotional opportunity, and this will bring to the foreground the consequence of loosing so many women during their most productive years.

Step 2 – Uncover the unconscious fears

With the consequences made clear, businesses must then turn to changing the way that both men and women think and feel about the problem. Changing the way people think and feel is vital if behaviour is to change. How people behave is not a direct consequence of the situation but it is a direct result of how people interpret what will happen. Change that is accompanied by fear, anxiety, rivalry and debasement will be avoided at all cost. This is what lies at the very heart of the gender agenda; men fear loss of identity, loss of earning potential and loss of superiority and women fear setting themselves up, or being set up to fail. These mostly unspoken, unconscious dynamics are at the root of the resistance to change. These fears must be brought in to the open, discussed, given meaning and worked through.

Gary Bullard, CEO of Catquin , an organisation whose aim is to increase female representation on major UK based company boards, tells it how it is. Catquin’s service aims to help women to compete in a man’s world. “Women” he says, “don’t push themselves forward for promotion, preferring to focus on doing their current job well”. Men will put themselves in the frame early, so when it comes to a decision, the promoting senior executive is left in no doubt of the consequence of the decision to hire the woman that no one realised wanted the job. It will cause shock waves and alienation amongst his male colleagues. How we think and feel about this situation is emotive and human – ‘why should a woman change the way she promotes herself, men need to be better at looking around’. ‘Men should be more courageous and face the wrath of their colleagues that is the right thing to do’ (that might be right but how many of us are truly that courageous, men or women) and so the argument goes on, bouncing around in the reality of very real unconscious feelings that fill our daily lives.

Catquin is making good tactical progress for the women that they help but at the expense of fuelling the need for women to act like men to progress. This strategy will not change the game unless women who are placed in these senior roles take considerable positive action themselves once in role. Something Gary fears is not yet happening.

Gender and gender identity are social constructs

Reports on gender bias typically focus on the differences between men and women, indicating that men and women are bipolar opposites. In truth whilst there are substantial biological differences between males and females, the very real differences between the way men and women are and work are illusions rooted in socially created conceptions of what it means to be masculine or feminine. We know this because worldwide anthropological studies can demonstrate significant examples of tribes and cultures where to be female means to be aggressive and dominant and to leave childcare to the men.

The degree to which people see themselves as masculine or feminine is largely defined by what it means to be a man or a woman in the society in which we live. Femininity and masculinity are rooted in the social (one’s gender) rather than the biological (one’s sex).

To modify our work and social system will require that we first look at these systemic understandings of what it means to be masculine or feminine. Modifying societal and individual beliefs about what masculinity and femininity mean will bridge the gap between reality and illusion and provide a real mechanism for change. Social members define what being male or female means and this defines how we behave toward one another and the meanings that we associate with certain behaviours. To take a career break to nurture children is, in Western Society, largely considered a feminine thing to do. To climb the corporate career ladder, to dominate and to compete are considered largely masculine things to do.

One’s gender identity is based on the meanings that individuals have internalised from their association of the role of male or female respectively in society. Since these are ‘self meanings’ they cannot be directly observed they must be inferred from behaviour and expressions in which a person engages.

Step 3 – Take positive action

Positive action is not the same as positive discrimination. Positive action is not about giving more favourable treatment to particular groups it is about taking action to counteract the effects of past discrimination and to help abolish stereotyping. For example, if you have two people who are equally capable of doing a job and one is a woman and the other a man, then choosing a woman over a man is perfectly legitimate to help redress the balance of past discrimination.

Behaviour doesn’t spread like disease and it certainly doesn’t spread from the people at the top of the hierarchy, it spreads from what normal people do. From an early age humans learn to copy others. We are herd animals that mostly do what others do; the crux is getting enough of the herd to turn.

According to a recent survey by ‘Peoplefirst’ women are not yet taking positive action in sufficient numbers for herd behaviour to truly kick. Peoplefirst surveyed fifty senior executive women from diverse organisations (including the legal profession, media, telecommunications, construction, professional and financial services) asking about questions about attitudes to and the behaviour of taking positive action, it seems on the whole the majority of these women don’t. It seems that the female sense of integrity and fairplay is just getting in the way.

Here is a list of positive actions that women and men can take to address the balance of gender equity. None of them require radical reform, they are copy-able and they all meet the criteria of integrity, fairness and meritocracy.

  • 1. If all other things are equal, give the woman a chance to work on a high profile project
  • 2. Influence your organisation to change policy so that men or women can take equal maternity or paternity leave
  • 3. Request diversity statistics for an organisation and build these in to selection criteria for working with a supplier
  • 4. Be a positive role model, demonstrate the behaviours that you believe will make your organisations successful
  • 5. Offer to mentor to a fellow woman
  • 6. Introduce women to other women and men who might influence their progression and career
  • 7. Smash perceptions about gender typical roles by providing examples of men who stay at home and look after their children, women who are successful builders, fighter pilots, soldiers, CEO’s, Non-executive directors
  • 8. Provide young girls and boys with the opportunity to try out different types of roles
  • 9. Ensure that recruiters provide you with equal number of male and female candidates
  • 10. Suggest to your CEO and Chairman five positive steps that could be taken to address gender imbalance in your organisation and follow up to find out if he/she does anything about it

Step 4 - Celebrate women and men who help other women succeed

Behind every successful person there are a host of others who have been involved in the individual’s journey to the stars. Recognise those who take a risk, make change and more importantly deliver a more profitable organisation by not losing women in their most productive years are the ones who will shift the direction of the herd. These people need to be recognised and rewarded because this is the right thing to do.

A final word...

The gender agenda is not constrained by women alone. For every woman who is restrained by the ‘glass ceiling’ or who has fallen fowl of the ‘glass cliff’ there is a man stuck on the corporate elevator who wants to get off.

Our social construction of what it means to be masculine or feminine and what are male or female roles is changing, many would argue for the better. What is needed now is for women to recognise the important role that they must play in helping other women to achieve.

Every successful woman has access to a rich source of relationships, knowledge and experience that can be harnessed to help others to achieve, this is not about discrimination but positive action. Women can help other women by investing in businesses who have diverse boards, by coaching, mentoring and connecting the other women they know to each other and to others of influence. And finally, women can help other women by speaking up for the men in our world who want the time and flexibility to be fathers. Turning the herd is possible and makes sense, what will you do to help?


Ali Gill CEO