Why So Few Women on Boards? No Change in 10 Years!


You can be forgiven for having missed this little snippet of news, set alongside the scandals of women being harassed, which is grabbbing all the headlines (quite rightly). Yet they are connected.  Yes, 10 years and barely any change in the numbers of women on boards. So says a recent report from the well respected Cranfield School of Management.

Is it because attitudes have not changed? Is it because working practices still do not suit women? Is it because companies are not recruiting and retaining enough talent early on in the management pipeline? Is it because of latent sexism, unconscious bias? Is it because there aren’t any Governement led initiatives?

It’s all of those things, except perhaps the latter, because there have been some Government attempts to address this issue, such as men being able to take parental leave (take up is still very low), companies of over 250 employees having to report on the gender pay gap, (very few have to date, all seem to be waiting until the final hour, next April). And of course, the Equal Pay Act was introduced in 1970. I remember it, I really thought we would see a huge change. Still waiting…

Writing in The Guardian newspaper over 2 years ago, Harriet Minter came up with this pithy response to some of the oft trotted reasons on why women weren’t on boards in any significant numbers. It bears repeating:

There are fewer qualified women: this is applicable in some areas (eg STEM subjects) but in others there is simply no excuse. Women have equalled or outnumbered men (and outperformed them) in law degrees for nearly 25 years, more than enough time for them to have made partner, yet less than a quarter of partners at the UK’s largest law firms are female.

Women leave to have babies: a fallacy. Women often leave companies after having babies, but they rarely leave business. A Harvard study found that for most women with children, the decision to leave came because they find that after having children they were sidelined. Rather than the interesting and engaging work they were doing before giving birth, they were given projects with little recognition and no chance of advancement. Unsurprisingly, they decided to take their skills elsewhere.

This isn’t to say that men are consciously discriminating against their female colleagues. We all have our own internal biases, we are hard-wired to prefer people that look, sound and act like us. Given a choice between two people with the same qualifications, we’re always going to go with the one that we have the most in common with. At the most basic level this means that we’re going to go with someone of the same sex. We’re fighting deeply ingrained instincts.

Part of the problem is that women too, share those deeply grained instincts. I’m currently reading Inferior by Angela Saini, in which she takes a long hard look at some of the so called research on women in science and bias. Here’s an interesting snippet:

In a study published in 2013, psychologist Corinne Moss-Racusin and a team of researchers at Yale University explored the problem of bias in science by conducting a study in which over a hundred scientists were asked to assess a resume submitted by an applicant for a vacancy as a labortaory manager. Every resume was identical, except that half were given under a female name and half under a male name.

When they were asked to comment on these supposed potential employees, scientists rated those with female names significantly lower in competence and hireability. They were also less willing to mentor them, and offered far lower starting salaries. Interestingly, the authors added in their papaer, which appeared in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences: ‘The gender of the faculty participants did not affect responses, such that female and male faculty were equally likely to discriminate bias against the female student.’ Prejudice is so steeped in the culture of science, their results suggested, that women are themseves discriminating against other women.

So, are we all complicit in keeping women in their place? As well as challenging the patriarchy we need to challenge ourselves. We can’t wait another ten years for things to change.

There is still just time to grab a place on my RenewYou course in Bristol. Check out the details here and get in touch. It could be the best decison you make all year. Invest in you.


Posted on November 21st, 2017 by

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