[/caption]Earlier this year, I interviewed David Jones, global CEO of advertising agency Havas Worldwide. Jones spoke eloquently about his work with the One Young World youth project and was passionate about his belief that social media was changing business forever. But the meeting was most memorable because I made the sort of faux pas we all dread. Not being familiar with the offices of Euro RSCG—or its key staff—I had no idea that the woman who came to collect me from reception and who offered me tea was not Jones’s PA, but rather Kate Robertson, the company’s feisty chairman. Jones was borrowing her office and she was just being nice.
I met Robertson for a second time last week, again in her office. Ironically, this meeting was to discuss a new Euro RSCG report Gender Shift: Are women the new men? The report looks at how much better qualified than their male counterparts the current generation of female graduates is and how as a result they have different expectations and demands of their role in the workplace. Robertson was gracious enough to say of our previous meeting that people do it to her all the time. She said that Jones himself had made a similar mistake when they first met. But it’s the sort of mistake that would never happen the other way round. And herein lies the issue at the heart of the gender workplace debate.
This debate has got several notches louder in recent weeks with a flurry of reports and government activity, including a consultation from BIS on the representation of women on boards and the publishing of an equality strategy that openly encourages “positive action” to recruit women and other under-represented minorities. This means it’s OK to make a deliberate choice to recruit a woman when they are up against an equally qualified male candidate. It’s an approach the Conservatives controversially used to select candidates for the last election. The strategy paper also included a call for employers to carry out and publish gender pay audits.
Last month also saw the launch of the 30% Club, a campaigning group of FTSE-100 directors with the stated aim of 30 per cent female representation on boards by 2015. At the helm are Sir Win Bischoff, chairman of Lloyds Banking Group, and Roger Carr, chairman of Centrica. Speaking at the launch Sir Win said: “As chairmen, we have an obligation to speed up the pace of change and influence the board selection process to widen the talent pool. To do this, we need to champion diversity within our organisations, and as part of that develop our female talent and be prescriptive with search agencies to work towards a target for better female representation on boards.”
Management writer—and Director contributor—Jo Owen believes it’s nonsensical to talk about quotas. “Very often there simply isn’t the supply in senior management and executive positions,” he says. “So what happens is we’re expecting the board to be filled with women without any relevant experience, simply by virtue of their gender.” That way, he says, lies failure that will ultimately backfire on the perception of the effectiveness of women.
Despite being a passionate supporter of women on boards, Robertson is another who doesn’t have time for quotas. She doesn’t agree with the idea that boards need to represent customers. “If you’re BAE Systems your customers are arms buyers. So what happens then? I don’t think that argument holds water. What do women bring to boards? If they don’t bring anything special then it’s a free for all and it’s up to me to fight for my place.
"The difficulty is that this is not a numbers thing. If you look at the percentage gender split in middle management, the number of women tails off the higher you go. It’s about motivation and work-life balance, and it’s often about looking after children. But why do we want greater representation of women on boards? It shouldn’t be just about gender, it should be a competency argument. This is a business. I want the best people to do the best things for the benefit of shareholders.”
That’s not to say Robertson doesn’t think that women bring something different to boards. Indeed she later claims that boards will benefit in the years ahead from having more women at the top. It has to do with the changing nature of communications. “The future will be about communication via social media and women are more comfortable and natural with that sort of communication,” she says.
Those in favour of quotas point to Norway, where such a law has been introduced. While in the UK female board representation continues to hover at just over 12 per cent (and a fraction over five per cent for executive directorships), in Norway the figure has leapt up as companies fall in line with legislation. Supporters of the 30% Club also point to a recent McKinsey report Women Matter: Gender diversity, a corporate performance driver, which claimed that companies with women as leaders have a 35 per cent higher return on equity, while those with more than three women on their corporate board have an 80 per cent higher return on equity.
But it remains to be seen whether forcing a quick fix on such a complex issue will have the desired effect. A more sensible approach could be to impose more complex, structural changes lower down in organisations, so that more women take up positions at just below board level. The promotion of more high-profile senior businesswomen will also help to inspire younger women, acting as positive role models. Likewise support for mentoring programmes to encourage senior women to help those new to executive positions would also help.
Robertson claims more respect for women in general would be a start. “I’ve seen plenty of Mad Men type situations. If you spoke in a meeting, most men around the table would roll their eyes. I have never been in serious business meetings where men have been told to cut it short or get to the point, but I’ve seen it happen to lots of women.” Learning not to assume every woman who meets you in reception is a secretary might be a good place to start.
Richard Cree is editor of Director. To read his original post, click here.