Women could add different ‘voice’ to board discussions

Figures on
the number of women at board level are disappointing, but there are actions
women can take. By Val Singh

 

Although
the HR field is dominated by women, there were only three female HR directors
in the FTSE 100 list of companies in August 2000, and one of these has since
left.

The problem
was underlined by the recent index of FTSE companies, which showed women still
take only 5 per cent of seats on the boards of top companies (News, 14
November).

It is
disappointing that it is taking so long for females to break through the top
layer of the glass ceiling. Women can bring so much to the board in terms of
their different roles as consumers as well as managers. With their more diverse
personality types and experiences, they can influence board decision-making by
their different “voice”.

Women HR
directors on the board are likely to provide a more transformational way of
dealing with employment and people issues. Their experience in successfully
negotiating career paths may enable them to make a difference to some of the
structural barriers for women. They also provide important role models, which
may improve the retention of women in the organisation.

There
should by now be a growing pool of women managers with potential to achieve HR
director positions. These women have two hurdles to overcome. First, they have
to prove they can do the job as well as their male counterparts, despite the
gender stereotyping and masculine cultures still prevailing in many
organisations. With determination and investment in the right career capital,
they can overcome this.

Second,
there is a shrinking number of boardroom seats, so the competition is greater,
and there may be no HR directorship in their particular organisation.

A recent
paper by Kelly & Gennard in the Human Resource Management Journal examined
the paths by which 60 HR professionals achieved board positions. Most had
zigzagged between HR and other functions, on average three times. Some had
progressed vertically, and a small number had parachuted into HR directorships.
CEOs said they had signalled to their management team the qualities they sought
in HR directors. These were professional competence in HR, ability to make
business-focused decisions, and interpersonal team player ability.

Women
managers who “read” signals coming from their boards will examine their own
career strengths and decide whether to put themselves forward. The tendency for
women to wait to be asked rather than push themselves forward will be a hurdle.
Kelly & Gennard found it was the HR generalist rather than HR specialist
who was most likely to reach the boardroom. This may be a stumbling block for
women who like to work or who are channelled into specialist areas, because it
is easier to work part-time in those departments.

The HR
function on boards is often represented by the operations director who has a
key advantage over the would-be HR director when it comes to selection – a
helicopter view of how the company operates. For women HR managers who have
stayed in their specialist area, it may be difficult to get that business
overview which could propel them to the top. It is essential that they review
the signals and their careers, so that they can address any gaps in experience
or qualifications.

I recommend
self-development in terms of the building of reputation through impression
management of their real strengths. This involves creating networks upwards and
outwards, promoting ambition, seeking challenging tasks, even if there is an
element of risk. It involves moving out of the comfort zone of known technical
expertise into a wider arena. This is a real challenge for women, if they want
to get to the top.

 

By Dr Val
Singh, senior research fellow at the Centre for Developing Women Business
Leaders, Cranfield School of Management

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