Gender Parity on Boards of Directors: Why the Lack of Qualified Women in Leadership is a Myth

Gender parity is becoming an increasingly important topic in all aspects of the professional world. In this interview with Andrea Plotnick, we look at women on boards of directors and some of the myths that surround the topic of women in executive leadership.

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Andrea Plotnick, SVP Board & Executive Solutions, recently spoke with Philippe Jean Poirier from Isarta. The original article was published in French.

P. Poirier: I’d love to talk about the obstacles and gender barriers women are facing when it comes to pursuing board positions and about what could be done to help women occupy management roles in companies.

A. Plotnick: Women face a number of different obstacles. First, the talent pool traditionally was past or current CEOs. Given the dearth of women in these roles, that automatically limited how many women were being considered. The challenge is twofold: increasing the number of women in executive leadership roles and continuing to recognize that a CEO role is not the entry ticket to be a Board member. Clearly the Board as a whole benefits from having some Directors with CEO experience, but it is more important to think through the skills required to drive the organization’s strategy, and ensure a Board has the necessary capabilities to provide risk oversight in those areas.

According to a recent LHH survey, women report not feeling supported nor having the time to take on Board roles.  This speaks to broader societal issues, which we have seen amplified through the pandemic, whereby women tend to take on the lion share of childcare and home-related responsibilities, and when women are at the age when they would typically be thinking about Board work, they often have elder care to think about as well.

Men have implicitly benefitted from networks, connections, and pathways to Board seats. In the past, vacant Board seats were often filled through referrals by serving Board Directors and once you were on one Board, it became increasingly easier to land multiple Board seats. Women have not yet benefitted from the same pathways.

Traditionally, a lack of access has also meant that women have not put themselves forward for Board roles. They may look at Board postings, and if they don’t tick the box of everyone, they will not apply. Men tend to take a different attitude and are more willing to put themselves forward, even if they don’t tick all the boxes.

There are still some myths out there that there is a shortage of qualified women. If one moves away from requiring CEO experience and leverages skills matrices instead, this is clearly not the case. 

P. Poirier: What can be done?

A. Plotnick: Focus on elevating women into leadership roles by creating pathways/leadership journeys. As part of those journeys consider sponsorship programs, whereby senior executives work to elevate the profile of high potential women. Also, as part of the pathway, begin to build a Board resume early. For example, our Getting Board Ready program, offered in collaboration with Women Get on Board, advises women on how to progressively build their Board skill sets so that they are ready to step into a corporate Board seat, when they have the time to do so.

Boards should be ensuring that every Director search has qualified women as part of the shortlist. Alternatively, there are curated lists of qualified women that Boards can draw on if they choose not to use Search professionals. And it does not stop there.  Boards really need to look closely at their practices – what are implicit messages that may be sent around conformity (the recipe for success), how can a woman be paired with a more senior Board member to pave the way? This is not about the woman just being shown the ropes, this is also about the senior Board member truly listening to understand the headwinds ad challenges and being poised to do something about addressing them, as an ally.

P. Poirier: Still in 2021, there seems to be an imbalance regarding family responsibilities between women and men. The pandemic and lockdowns have brought upon a heavier weight on women’s shoulders; according to you, does the fact of having a family still hinders careers today? If so, how to overcome this challenge?

A. Plotnick: Yes, it does. As noted above, it isn’t just childcare, it is elder care, and home care. The pandemic simply brought it to the surface. It is not an easy question, but more flexibility in work hours helps. One thing the pandemic has done is blurred the boundaries between work and home even more – not unusual to see children in the picture. Women (and men) may benefit from more flexibility in terms of how they accommodate their families. It may also require pacing -chunking the end goal into manageable and supported steps.

P. Poirier: What are some other challenges you have observed? Are women lacking confidence, skills, and other essential qualities?

A. Plotnick: A lot of efforts at addressing gender parity in executive and Board roles, have focused on “fixing” women. The focus should be more on fixing cultures to be more inclusive and truly valuing diversity. We have to move past a tick box exercise focused purely on numbers and think more about how do we create the right cultures to allow diverse groups to share their perspectives, rather than feeling that pressure to confirm. Without doing that, the business benefits of greater diversity and inclusion are lost, and it becomes a less hospitable environment for anyone who does not fall into the mainstream. This is true of both Boards and Executive ranks. Many organizations make the same mistake – they hire for diversity, but then all the pressures lead to onboarding for conformity, and then they are surprised when people leave or do not have the desired impact.

Of note, some of the leadership qualities that we are seeing bubbling to the surface through the pandemic, and that will likely continue to be of relatively greater importance, or those that traditionally would have been associated with women: connecting with empathy, collaboration, servant/collective leadership.  

It is also important to recognize that women do not put their hands up as often as men for opportunities. This includes some of the most successful female CEOs. This may not be due to a lack of confidence, it might be a lack of role models, it might be seen as too many headwinds. What is clear, is that organizations need to look deeper in their organizations to identify high potential women, tap them on the shoulder, and provide them with the scaffolding needed to advance.  

P. Poirier: What are the myths about women on boards?

A. Plotnick:

  • Lack of qualified women
  • Need for CEO experience
  • Using the example of a single woman as being diverse, or not having the desired impact

Curated lists exist, and leveraging skills matrices, which is the best practice way of addressing Board renewal, quickly moves beyond CEO experience as the only route. Clearly having one is better than none, but it does not address the intent behind diverse perspectives at the table. Beyond just bringing on under-represented groups, the conditions need to be created to enable them to do what they are there to do: share diversity of thought.

P. Poirier: According to your experience, are board members creating resistance or are they allies? How do we sell the idea of an inclusive board to management members? Should we need to demonstrate ROI or should it be more about the fact that we need to go in this direction as it’s the socially responsible thing to do?

A. Plotnick: I don’t think there is one answer. Many Boards are well-intentioned and are looking to build greater diversity and inclusion, but they may not be aware of their unconscious biases that get in the way, at every step in the process. Others may be more resistant and are more likely to draw on myths to support their perspectives. Beyond a doubt, it has to be more than a tick box exercise, and there typically needs to be a critical mass or a very strong single voice to reap the benefits of diversity. It also requires deliberately working through issues from multiple perspectives. LHH has created a process to assess Directors and the Board, as a whole for inclusivity – it can be eye-opening. That is a critical way of “selling: the idea – recognizing that we all may not be as inclusive as we think we are.

The fact, is, even with Canadian Business Corporations Act (CBCA), requiring all publicly traded organizations, governed by the CBCA to disclose Board diversity targets, and explanations if there are no plans, there still has been insufficient progress.

We need to address both that it is “the right” thing to do, and what it makes good business sense. The research is there, linking diversity, when it is well-channeled to better innovation, agility, financial performance, and a host of other measures. While homogeneous teams might come to decisions quicker, a well-functioning diverse team will reach better decisions – and isn’t that the point? If a Board needs to provide oversight of risk, being able to think through multiple perspectives is essential.

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