Diversity - Women on Board

by Anj Handa

Board Diversity: the stats

The latest research by the Directory of Social Change which looked at the gender balance on 399 corporate boards has found that the overall percentage of women on boards was around 22%. Only 4% of Boards had an equal number of men and women and 16% of companies in the sample excluded women entirely!

So much for the Tesco Chairman’s assertion that men are an ‘endangered species’ in UK Boardrooms – we also lag behind the rest of Europe.

The study found that females on Boards tend to occupy non-executive roles and that few have a female chair or CEO. If we cut this data with other diversity strands, such as ethnicity or disability, the figures would plunge further.

I’m proud to say that I currently occupy two Board roles: as a Governor of a specialist arts university and as Chair of a small theatre production company.

This year, for the first time, Arts Council England has published figures on the diversity of Chairs in the Arts sector. Women occupy 32% of Chair roles; 9% of Chairs (male and female) come from ethnic minority backgrounds. I’m unclear how many of my counterparts this would equate to, but it’s clear that I’m in a very small minority.

If there is information on Board composition for educational establishments, it’s not readily available.

Why traditional Board recruitment methods are failing

As a former headhunter, let me share an insider secret with you. Many organisations still place senior-level or Board roles with Search and Selection companies.

Yet these vacancies tend to be ‘loss leaders’ for those companies. They cultivate a relationship with the client in the hope that this will lead to future job placement opportunities for ‘easier-to-place’ executive roles (which attract higher margins).

I have recent experience of dealing with one such company as a potential candidate for an opportunity forwarded to me by a fellow Board member. I knew that I met the competencies and was keen to apply.

On calling, I was answered with voicemail for two days straight. When I finally got a callback, I wasn’t given much more information than was already contained in the application pack.

Other approaches included advertising in print media or using existing Board networks, which can be limited in their breadth and range.

What can you do differently?

This isn’t about tokenism. Companies need to find a way to reach a sufficient number of diverse candidates who meet both the skills needs and culture of the Board.

If you go down the Search route unless you specifically ask for 50/50 shortlist, the headhunter will usually present you with a list of candidates that have not been too difficult to source.

In some cases, media listings work, but more targeted sites (e.g. Women on Boards) are likely to be more effective. Use social media and ask your network to share with their networks.

Be clear about the attributes you are looking for and target individuals yourself. With both of my Board roles, I was proactively targeted by the organisations and then undertook the same rigorous Board recruitment processes as any other applicant.

Personal reflections

A key point to consider is that I wasn’t actively seeking those opportunities, but had the expertise (Equality) coupled with the Governance experience to add value to the Board. I’m passionate about the Arts, so both are an excellent fit.

Through the course of my various appointments, I’ve been involved in decision-making on multi-million capital and revenue projects, challenged Equality plans, led the selection criteria for new Board members and restructured a Board.

This experience adds to my professional resume but also contributes to my own self-belief. It enables personal growth in a way that no amount of professional development courses would achieve.

From a candidate’s perspective, it’s about being seen. To be identified, you need to be out there, networking and having useful conversations.

Through Inspiring Women Changemakers, members are actively matched to suitable opportunities. One of the introductions has already resulted in a Board appointment.

Are you struggling to recruit to your Board? Would your Board benefit from a facilitated discussion? Or are you a women leader considering a voluntary or renumerated Board position, but need some support? Then contact me at anj@inspiringwomenchangemakers.co.uk

Anj Handa is the Founder of Inspiring Women Changemakers. She helps women to speak up: for themselves, for others and for social issues.