This year will be a milestone for more equal boards

This article was originally written by Helena Morrissey and appeared in the Sunday Telegraph on 18th January 2015.

This year is a landmark year for those of us campaigning for a better balance of men and women on corporate boards: both the 30pc Club’s original aim to have at least 30pc of women directors on FTSE 100 boards and Lord Davies’ minimum recommendation of 25pc, have this year-end as our deadline.

The goals are within reach: since the 30pc Club’s launch in November 2010, the proportion of female FTSE 100 directors has risen from 12.5pc to 23pc at the last count – a big increase in just four years.

There are now no all-male FTSE 100 boards, down from 21 when we started and a massive drop in the number of FTSE 250 companies with no female directors, from 130 to 25.

Extrapolating the current rate of director turnover and proportion of new appointments going to women suggests the end of year outcome will lie somewhere between Lord Davies’ target and the 30pc Club’s slightly more ambitious one.

There are opportunities to speed things up – data last week from BoardEx shows out of 839 non-executive FTSE 100 directorships, 83 NEDs – 10pc – have served on the board for more than nine years, the maximum recommended term under the UK Corporate Governance Code. Of these, 74 are men.

As the Cranfield 2014 Female FTSE Board Report suggests, opening up some of these past-their-sell-by-date positions to well-qualified women would accelerate what’s already been exciting progress.

This progress is good news for everyone keen to see more effective boards. As the chair supporters of the 30pc Club put it (and there are 120 of them), the board dynamic and decision-making process are better when there’s a balance of the sexes.

Empirical evidence suggests that companies with three or more women on their boards achieve superior financial results (return on equity and return on capital employed) than those with all-male boards. Causality can’t be proved – that this is because of the women – but I’ve noticed that those companies which “get” this particular issue also tend to be more forward-looking on other aspects of good governance.

The 30pc Club is focusing less on the end of 2015 as a finishing line and more as a stepping stone: sustainable change has always been the objective. There are now 16 intense 30pc Club workstreams spanning schoolroom to boardroom. This is not just talk. It is not just a single effort. It is a whole series of actions, taken by very many people, across many areas, with absolute determination.

So last week we launched a collaboration with Speakers for Schools, a fantastic organisation founded by BBC economics editor Robert Peston to provide talks by leading business and political figures at state schools around Britain.

At the launch at an east London school, questions from the sixth formers revealed that already, girls are wary of entering male-dominated sectors. The 30pc Club chairmen talks are focused on encouraging boys and girls to value each other as equals and for girls to consider a wide range of careers.

Last week has also seen the 30pc Club initiate a survey to help us better understand university students’ career aspirations and whether these differ significantly between men and women. This is the brainchild of another Helena, Helena Eccles, who’s an undergraduate at Cambridge, where we’re piloting the survey before extending it to a broad range of universities.

What’s really dawned on me through looking at all stages of the career journey is that the retro boardroom is a microcosm of the antiquated world of work. I’ve written before about the need to modernise the workplace but now realise this involves much more than just practical aspects (though these are important).

For businesses to perform well today, we need to rebalance male and female attributes and weave in other types of differences too.

Over the quarter of a century since I started my career, it is amazing how little has changed in the way most businesses use their most valuable asset – its people. Most of us work in the same way as our parents did, making the daily commute, sitting at one desk, working traditional, if longer hours.

Even where some flexibility or working from home is available, this tends to be seen as an employee perk rather than a smart way to get the best out of people. Yet over this same quarter of a century, globalisation and technology have changed almost everything else – the way we communicate, network and influence, the way we shop, the way we actually do our work once we are there.

These two megatrends have given rise to a third, the erosion of traditional “command and control” structures. A new kind of power is unfolding in a world built on networks. The aptitudes needed today include collaboration, listening and empathy, building trust and transparency. These are traditionally viewed as “female” attributes. Men can develop them too, but current neuroscience suggests that women are wired in a way that gives us an advantage in today’s world.

The 30pc Club chairmen realised that they were missing out by not having enough women in the boardroom – the need to rebalance masculine and feminine energies (even if they might not express it quite like that).

This is the real breakthrough moment, because it means that women not just can but need to be ourselves. This is the really great news. To be
honest, I would not really want my daughters to follow my path to a senior role – because I know it involved many compromises as I fitted in with the status quo to have a voice, to get that seat at the table. Today’s senior women have typically had to find a way of being accepted into the old-fashioned hierarchical model – but as that breaks down, the next generation doesn’t have to.

As feminine strength and difference becomes more valued, a virtuous circle can follow, creating an environment in which our daughters can contribute to a culture where there is a much better balance of the male and female dynamic.

What unfolds next is up to all of us. To build on the progress already seen we must be collaborative, valuing the feminine and masculine as equal, but distinctive. Working together as true equals is the path I want to help make real.

It’s a long way from simply putting a few more women on boards, but, I believe, this is the real story of the 30pc Club.