How are You Developing Board-Ready Female Leaders?

Women account for less than a fifth of board directors, but companies can take steps now to address this disparity.

More gender diversity on boards neededThe lack of women on company boards continues to persist, and with all the mechanisms available to boost diversity and the benefits associated with it, there’s no excuse for companies to be struggling in this area.

“It’s merely a case of status quo bias — boards tend to hire in their own image,” wrote Nick Marsh, managing director of Harvey Nash Executive Search in an email interview with Chief Learning Officer.

As it is, that image is composed largely of men. According to 2020 Women on Boards, a national campaign focused on increasing the percentage of women on U.S. company boards to 20 percent by 2020, last year, women held 18.8 percent of board seats for active companies on the 2016 Forbes 1000 list. That’s less than a one percent point increase from 2015, when women accounted for 17.9 percent of board membership.

Marsh wrote that though some organizations may claim they don’t have female representation because there aren’t enough senior women to fill the positions, his company has never found it difficult to find talented, trained and driven women for top roles. The running shortlists Harvey Nash manages for senior executive roles are on average 24 percent to 50 percent female. If driving greater board diversity means searching externally to find candidates, organizations must be willing to take their search beyond their internal network, which may currently be largely male.

There’s no shortage for arguments about what companies sacrifice by not prioritizing greater gender diversity in their boardrooms. Diverse insights and perspectives break up homogeneity and prevents group think, they also drive more creative problem solving.

Nick Marsh

Nick Marsh

Further, Marsh said, “A certain level of tension or conflict in a boardroom helps encourage varied approaches and often leads to boards being more agile and aware of customer issues.” In essence, when there is greater stakeholder representation at the board level, companies are likely more responsive to their stakeholders’ — customer — needs.

In a January 2015 McKinsey and Co. report, “Diversity Matters,” which looked at the impact of diversity on organization performance, researchers found companies that ranked high in gender diversity were 15 percent more likely to have financial returns above the medians in their respective national industries.

While Marsh wrote that companies pointing to a lack of board-ready female candidates should consider hiring an external search firm if necessary, there are steps organizations can take in the interim to develop internal talent for board membership.

Since 2012, Harvey Nash and the University of Hong Kong’s Faculty of Business and Economics’ department of Executive Education have run the Women’s Directorship Programme to build a pool of female leaders ready for the boardroom. The internationally focused program spans industries and includes modules in areas like collaborative leadership, roles and responsibilities for board and committee members, and public company and securities market regulation.

To support women in developing the skills and having the experiences that will help prepare them for this role, Marsh wrote the best approach to address the issue of board gender diversity is often to address company culture. “Companies need to ensure corporate culture and values are aligned with gender diversity, from the leadership all the way down.”

For learning organizations, this means:

Creating internal mentoring programs: Use existing company role models to promote diversity initiatives and support talent development.

Mapping and identifying high potential women: Both within the business and externally, support a strong female talent pipeline.

Training and coaching: Continuous learning and development is key to any executive career. Investments that hone and develop new and pre-existing skills for employees is essential. Both internal and external training is beneficial.

Engaging male champions of change to be mentors: Support men who recognize diversity as an issue, Marsh wrote. Encourage them to act as sponsors and mentors for women within the business. Mentoring can be completed formally through an internal program, or informally through personal networks. There is also value in acting as a mentor for others to share knowledge and develop future leaders.

Bravetta Hassell is a Chief Learning Officer associate editor. Comment below, or email editor@CLOmedia.com.

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