Sometimes you read a news story so ridiculous and full of misunderstanding that you can’t help but squint at the words in disbelief. That’s how we stared at the list of excuses from leading UK companies about why they have not promoted a single woman to their corporate boards.
It starts with old-fashioned misogyny and, “I don't think women fit comfortably into the board environment.” Then it evolves to some serious sexism, with, “the issues covered are extremely complex.” The last few comments are too ridiculous to even warrant categorisation. Both “Shareholders just aren't interested in the make-up of the board, so why should we be?” and “We have one woman already on the board, so we are done - it is someone else's turn”.
The excuses were all made to the researchers behind the Government’s Hampton-Alexander Review on the gender balance of management boards in UK companies. The review is part of well-intentioned efforts to get women to hold a third of senior corporate positions but we’re culturally, and statistically, a long way from even superficial workplace diversity.
Research from the University of Cambridge suggests it is workplace culture issues that hold women back – and that the barrier to change is that men can be unaware of these problems. Read again the comments on “women taking turns” or their inability to turn their (presumably) bubble-headed brains to “extremely complex” ideas and that seems painfully true. The comments are shallow. And dated. And horrifying.
The actual value of bringing more women into the boardroom is to achieve greater diversity, develop different approaches and generate wider underlying trends in how our economy, and our society, operates. So yes, we must look to getting senior women on boards, but first corporate spaces must be inclusive. As workplace researcher Barbara Stocking explains, “no woman wants to sit on a board if she is not going to be listened to. There is plenty of evidence that women are interrupted in meetings or, worse, have their contributions attributed to a man.”
The latest statistics on the number of women in Britain's boardrooms will be announced at the end of June. I expect there will be progress but still not what we can call a resounding success. The truth I did see in the list of reasons for women not being boards is the comment that, “We need to build the pipeline from the bottom - there just aren't enough senior women in this sector.” Women consistently make up less than half of the senior management workforce in Britain’s largest companies. Women are highly-educated, they are employed but they’re not being called to leadership.
True diversity needs co-operation. That’s co-operation between women, and for women. It requires an agreement to change the status quo in a way that educates our daughters and raises their eyes.
Our country’s most successful companies are those that champion diversity. We support them. We work for them. We work for a future beyond disbelief, beyond casual sexism – a future where diversity works for us all.