Key to a more diverse boardroom is avoiding identikit thinking

Research launched later this week will expose the fact that the number of women on FTSE-listed boards is still painfully low: at the last count, women made up less than 5% of executive directorships.

Human resources directors have a responsibility to change these figures. By rights, all HR directors should themselves be on the board, but this doesn’t happen nearly as often as it should. Cynics will always claim there should be no need for intervention and that, in their organisation, everyone can achieve positions of power regardless of their gender.

Gender diversity

But this view is too simplistic. The fact is that the status quo is a male one. If all things are really so equal and fair, why is it that men outnumber women on boards so dramatically? All too often some of the most senior positions are not posted or advertised, and senior men who may be vocal advocates of diversity still slip into old habits and appoint in their own image.

I strongly believe that achieving a better gender diversity on boards is not a nice-to-do, but rather something that can offer vital business advantage.

A Fortune 500 study carried out by Catalyst in the US shows that companies with the highest representation of women on their top management teams delivered 35.1% higher return on equity and 34% higher total return to shareholders than companies with fewer women at the top.

Having a more diverse management team helps avoid ‘identikit thinking’ and encourages a dynamic mix of experience, perspectives, attitudes and approaches, which ultimately leads to better leadership.

Research has proved that mixed management groups are more effective than homogenous ones in making effective decisions. So there are clear reasons for trying to ensure that boards are comprised of more than just white middle-aged men.

Action plans

But what action will help turn the positive rhetoric into reality? In our work with 350 of the UK’s largest organisations, I have seen several approaches that, when taken in combination, can make a significant and positive difference.

First, I would encourage HR directors to carefully unpack the brief for senior appointments. Research from Veredus suggests that the more senior the appointment, the less time is spent defining the brief. It found that the rigour and openness that is often common in lower managerial appointments was not evident when it came to boardroom positions. Where organisations have really analysed the needs and challenges of the role and translated these into a bias-free leadership framework that relies more on abilities than past experience, they have been more successful in attracting diverse talent.

Second, are you fishing in a large enough pond? Where are you sourcing candidates? If you are relying on traditional networks the lack of women can become a self-fulfilling prophecy: as there are fewer women currently on boards there will be fewer women in the traditional hunting grounds.

I would encourage HR teams to work very closely with search consultants and reward proactivity in terms of sourcing women from non-traditional areas. Have you asked your search agents to prove their credentials in this field and made this part of your contractual agreement? Lateral and creative thinking can most definitely pay dividends, but this kind of approach will take longer, and so I would encourage HR teams not to incentivise just on quick turnarounds.

Shortlisting candidates

Diversity needs to go beyond just the shortlist – it needs to extend to the way candidates are reviewed and accessed. As a basic step, ensure diversity in your assessment panel and that everyone in it follows the same structured approach. In many cases, it is the chair and existing board members who will make the final decision. Are they trained in a bias-free approach to recruitment? I have seen how board-specific diversity training and awareness can help to challenge and overcome inherent or unconscious bias.

But the recruitment and selection process is literally the first step, not the last. A successful induction of new board representatives is a must and can be achieved by HR working in partnership with existing board members.

Norma Jarboe, director, Opportunity Now

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