Harvey Nash / Inspire Report ~ Results of Women in the Boardroom survey

According to a recent Harvey Nash / Inspire Report, Women in the boardroom see the onus is on them, not legislation, to make the difference.

Despite 81% of women feeling that bias in the appointment process has a major impact on female representation, almost two-thirds (64%) of women do not support legal quotas. This is according to research conducted by Inspire, the female executive board network that is supported by Harvey Nash, a global professional recruitment consultancy and IT outsourcing service provider.

Instead, women respondents cited education and awareness as the single biggest opportunity for improving boardroom balance (44%), followed by published targets and regular reporting (40%). It appears from the survey, conducted of 365 male and female board level and senior executives, that the majority of women in business want to be taken seriously for their expertise and not simply for being on the board.

Whilst still a minority of women (36%) believed quotas should be put in place, this is a growing and vocal segment of leading women in business and politics. For example, the UK Labour party is considering new rules making it mandatory that at least one of the two most senior leadership positions are held by a woman. In an interview given in London recently, one of its most influential female politicians said women were still a long way from being equal in the party.

But regardless of whether factors such as legislation and education are the solution, 84% of women believe they personally need to do more to achieve a higher representation on the board.

Women on the board – men think it’s all marketing?

A significant minority (41%) of senior male executives and board members believe the push to achieve a higher female board representation is more about corporate marketing than it is about board room effectiveness.

Whilst the vast majority of executives support the principal of a greater balance of representation at board level, there are significant differences between males and females about why it is required and the causes of the current imbalance:

Almost half (49%) of male board directors believe that having women on the board will make no difference to the board effectiveness. Women are much more bullish: 89% believe their increased presence will improve effectiveness.

The majority of men (51%) think there is ‘no problem’ with the current make up of their board, compared to 33% of women.

Almost two-thirds of men (63%) believe low female board representation is ultimately a ‘supply’ issue, attributable to the lack of suitably qualified women. Women believe the opposite, with 81% citing ‘demand’ as the ultimate factor, caused by a bias in the appointment process.

Carol Rosati, director of Harvey Nash and joint founder of Inspire – Harvey Nash’s board level network for women – comments: “The results show a major difference in how men and women view females on the board: women think there’s a problem, men don’t. What is most striking about the survey is how women are looking to themselves to make a difference, rather than using the prop of legislation or targets. It’s a positive message, but there’s still a long way to go. For instance, women tend to apply for jobs only when they meet the vast majority of the requirements, whilst their male counterparts are often happy to throw their “hat” in the ring possessing less than half of the skill set required. Without a step change in women’s attitude the case for quotas will no doubt remain.”

About this survey: The survey was conducted online during May / June 2011 and was sent to the subscriber base of Harvey Nash’s executive magazine OAM. 365 people responded, of which 33% were main board members, 43% senior executives reporting to the board and the remainder (24%) executives and senior managers. OAM’s subscriber base is primarily UK based.


These comments, just some of those that respondents left, tell a very important part of the story, over and above the statistics.

Political and business history demonstrates that legislation is required to create a step-change in both business and public culture.

I believe the best candidate should be appointed regardless of gender, race, disability etc. A board should be able to choose the candidate that best fits their requirements rather than having a quota system that does not guarantee the best individual is selected.

Childcare in 90% of households defaults to mum and career aspirations of these in general either cease or are put on hold whilst the children grow up. Those who stop deplete the pool of female candidates, those who put their career on hold for 10 years are at a disadvantage against men of the same age as they have 10 years additional experience by default. When looking for board directors a requirement for a breadth of experience is a major factor. Therefore in order to be on a level playing field women need to remain childless or have a partner who takes on the childcare role. Our team of executive directors illustrates this point. The team is made up of 7 members 2 of which are women and neither has had children.

I believe that quotas and control are necessary as a catalyst to kick start a change, once there is some traction this approach should then be amended.

This is a bit of a frustrating issue for me. Personally, I think the fact we are asking the question is the massive issue here! Surely, business would be a better place if the best people, got the best jobs?!

Women need to flag explicitly their interest in the board. Speak to their CEO’s, seek mentors if necessary. Proactively seek opportunities to demonstrate that they have the skill sets. I am against quotas but in favour of more information about how diversity on boards can help to drive innovation, broaden outlook, etc. It’s not just about gender it’s about boards being comprised of too many people with homogenous experience, which leads to an absence of real debate and dialogue that does not foster innovation and creation, nor enough scrutiny. So it’s about a broad range of skills, experience and perspectives on a board, and when you look at it that way, it follows that more women will come through.

Positive discrimination for women is bad for both women and men. Targets should be set so that the situation will be reviewed and analysed for suitable training etc taken.

The questions were difficult to answer and the reality is more complicated than a yes or no answer. For example question 11 – the answer is probably both supply AND demand – and the difficulty seems to be determining the mix.

The dichotomy is that culturally in UK it is very difficult for a woman to rise to the board. In general, women have a less aggressive approach in their work style which can be misinterpreted as not being right for board appointments. Therefore, women need to actively voice their desire to be appointed to the board in their organisations as well as show how effective they would be as a board member. Quotas will give the opportunity in the short term for boards to adopt a more inclusive culture which, ultimately, leads to less need for quotas as the barriers are broken down.

Most boards are so demanding on women in terms of times that it is unattractive to women juggling families and all, hence the reason for low representation

This is the wrong debate – the real issue is the role of NED’s, the poor quality governance and strategic oversight and accountability they demonstrate and are held to, and the ‘clubbiness’ of Board’s. Much better to focus on diverse Boards in a general sense, not focus on gender as the issue

When I set out my career, I naively believed I could as a woman achieve what I wanted to, or not, and family was not going to be a factor. This is so untrue. Having 2 full time jobs (work and mum) is such a demand and both I and employers know it. I’m shocked, being on the job market for the first time in 9 years that I am overtly asked about my domestics. I’ll bet men aren’t asked? There needs to be more support, tolerance (i.e. yes we have 2 jobs) and be assessed for our capability only

I am a Non-Exec on Board of NHS Foundation Trust and there is a good balance of female Board members. However, this is not the case elsewhere. If the banks had more women on their boards they may not have had the problems they had which were largely due to an “old Boy” toe the line approach. As well as more women there should be more Chartered Directors and existing FTSE 350 companies should be encouraged to put their Directors through this IoD programme

Things are changing. Since the debate intensified I have been headhunted and offered/appointed to two non-exec roles. One on a FTSE 350 PLC (formerly FTSE 100), another on a privately held, private equity-backed company that is similarly sized.

A major problem here is that headhunters don’t put women forward – it’s too risky, there are too few qualified women, clients are nervous of women on the board because it threatens the clubby atmosphere. Even if women are put forward, they have to look good in which case they may also be too young and lack adequate board or relevant sector experience so do not shine when they get there. Many women are appointed for window dressing reasons (I include my former self) but fortunately in order to get to into the boardroom, women are often pretty tough and may be less compliant than the Chair and board anticipated. But for the most part headhunters just don’t have the heart for senior female appointments. Headhunters act as sole entrepreneurs and do not hunt as a pack so they go for the low risk candidates where they can achieve a quick fee for the firm from which they will benefit and if they can extend their client base for future searches so much the better.

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