Did you know that just 15% of board members around the world are women? That’s an incredibly low figure considering more and more research is emerging that clearly shows the power of gender diversity in leadership. Studies have found that companies with a female presence at board level typically outperform strictly male-led firms in terms of research and development, patent registrations, and overall innovation.
Fortunately, over the past few years, progress has certainly been made. This is both out of the growing awareness of the importance of gender diversity in leadership and out of the emergence of Government-mandated targets. In California, for example, the Board Diversity Mandate stipulates that by the end of 2021, companies with up to four directors must have one woman in a directorship position. This increases to two for companies with five directors, and three for companies with six or more directors.
But there’s a problem. The economic impact that the COVID-19 pandemic has had means that organisations are placing their focus on survival, rather than diversity and inclusion. And it’s easy to see why. But as women, we can’t afford to have the change we’ve fought for be reversed by a health crisis. Together, we must use this as an opportunity to keep the movement going in the right direction. So if you’ve been considering going after your first board role, now could be the perfect time to do it.
As Sharon Throne and Dan Konigsburg note in the Harvard Business Review, ‘gender parity in the boardroom won’t happen on its own’. We need to make it happen. So how can women position themselves as attractive candidates for board level roles?
There’s no one single answer. Women could think about positioning themselves…
1. As Networkers
According to reports, many offers of board level roles come about unsolicited; from a ‘who you know’ point of view, rather than ‘what you know’. And this shows us something… it shows us that the board values those with strong networks that have worked to build, nurture, and maintain genuine and diverse relationships with others. Relationships are a vital part of business success, so positioning yourself as someone that understands the power of networking – of supporting others, of learning from others, of listening to alternative points of view – can help to make you an attractive candidate.
2. As Deviations From the Norm
A really interesting study was published in Sage Journals in 2018. Perceived roles of women directors on supervisory boards: Insights from a qualitative study found that most board members surveyed – both men and women – didn’t believe it mattered which genders were represented across the board. The general consensus was that there was really no difference between male and female leaders, with end decisions always the same. We disagree. Not necessarily in end results, but in how we get to those decisions. So women should be positioning themselves as deviators; showing we *are* different.
3. As Mediators
Looking once again at the study linked to above, there were just a few differences that participants noted about the differences in male and female leadership. And one was that women on the board are, in general, better mediators. One participant noted that ‘in stand-off situations where no solution could be found, women directors acted as ice-breakers, making it possible for everyone to agree’. Mediation, therefore, is clearly something that male-dominated boards are lacking. By positioning themselves as powerful mediators, women can highlight some qualities they bring to the table.
4. As Worthy
In a shocking – but not all that surprising – finding from the Women in Leadership Roles in Canada report, it was noted that a reluctance to ‘compromise the principles of meritocracy’ was the number one reason for businesses not adopting a written board diversity policy. Board members, when hiring, are afraid to go against the norms – to challenge tradition – for fear of taking away an opportunity from someone more worthy. So it’s time for women to take a front seat and position themselves as worthy candidates; as candidates just as worthy as men of elevating into a leadership role.
5. As Decision Makers
Australia’s Workplace Gender Equality Agency suggests that when businesses have women in key decision making positions, they achieve ‘better company performance, greater productivity, and greater profitability’ than when organisational decisions are made exclusively by men. These are obviously three major benefits for businesses – especially in the post-COVID landscape – so it can be advantageous for women to position themselves as keen decision makers who aren’t afraid to listen to different perspectives, analyse data, and combine these into smarter, better outcomes.
6. As Technology Focused
An interesting thing to note right now is that there’s a common problem that many boards and senior executive teams are experiencing today: a significant lack of technical knowledge. Accenture reports that there is a ‘general lack of tech experience – among women and men alike – in boardrooms around the world’, and suggests that this could be an advantage for women looking to rise into leadership. The consulting firm notes that it is an ‘opportunity that women with professional technology experience have to join corporate boards’ to fill a potentially troublesome skills gap.
7. As Exceptional
Gay Collins of the 30% Club – an initiative striving to see 30% of board seats filled by women – states that these new diversity quotas that we’re seeing introduced are ‘demeaning to women’. And we agree. Women shouldn’t be positioning themselves as diversity hires, playing to the needs of old school leaders viewing D&I as a case of fairness. They should be positioning themselves as exceptional and reinforcing the core principles that D&I is all about. It’s not about giving women opportunities they don’t deserve; it’s about eradicating this historical trend of overlooking exceptional females.
Putting yourself out there as a leader in a world that doesn’t quite seem 100% ready to embrace change can be a nerve-wracking experience. But the good news is that there are so many organisations and initiatives providing support and guidance when you need it. We’re incredibly lucky to have initiatives such as the 30% Club that we mentioned earlier, Where Women Work which shines a light on those companies going above and beyond to support women’s career progression, and, of course, Forward Ladies, where we’re connecting women to opportunities to really empower them.
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