working women

Getting the Board’s Attention

I’ve personally never been a public company director, but I’m going to go out on an limb and say that being a director of a large company is far easier than being a senior manager of one.  Though you certainly have serious fiduciary duties as a director, you also don’t have to deal with — or even know about — a lot of the messy operational issues, people ply you with neat compilations of reports and information, and you have time and the mental/emotional distance to evaluate high-level issues, company results, and the management team.  Unless there’s a high-profile crisis, you’re not under real stress or pressure to “perform”.  And you certainly don’t have to answer to any day-to-day manager, nor have the responsibility to motivate, encourage and shape company culture or a team of employees.  Therefore, a part of me has always worried about whether the issue of the lack of female representation on boards is more about window-dressing than improving the cultural reality of the rank-and-file women employees.

PriceWaterhouseCoopers recently conducted their 2014 survey of directors and found that 57% of directors talk about diversity on the board, itself.  By definition, that means 43% of directors are not talking about it at all.  This struck me because I am a pretty avid follower of conversations and media attention around gender diversity.  I’m prone to falling into the classic trap of someone who believes something is an actual social issue because I see (and look for) it.  But clearly, only a modest majority of actual directors think about diversity amongst themselves.  If we want directors to actually discuss — much less, believe — there actually is an issue, what is to be done?  More articles, data, books, research?  There seems to be a lot of all of that already, so that seems unlikely to be the answer.  What would make directors pay attention to gender diversity?

My guess is that the Board would pay attention to an issue if it affected the company’s performance, recruitment or PR.  See, for example, how the NFL seems to be throwing women into top positions after its domestic violence-related scandal resulted in calls for the NFL Commissioner’s resignation by prominent women’s groups.  Ideally a PR “issue” isn’t a pre-requisite for a board to pay attention to gender, but given directors’ distance from the day-to-day issues at a company, its human nature to be relatively complacent.  One of my hopes for Fairygodboss is that if there’s a need to highlight something really wrong at a company, women are given a voice and safe space to talk about it.  Not all (in fact, not even most) issues should make it up to the Board; most problems should be resolved with simple actions taken through appropriate company channels.  However, sometimes those company channels don’t work or there are systematic and serious things that need to be considered at the highest levels of management.  In these cases, directors who otherwise don’t think diversity issues matter, will hopefully take a serious look at what women employees have to say.

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