Why boards need more women

Boards need women more than women need boards – but bringing the two together offers opportunities for both.

For women, board service can provide the ability to influence important decisions, develop expanded networks, achieve immense personal satisfaction and build on or develop new knowledge and skills.

For boards, having more women at the table can offer the opportunity to tap into an often-ignored but rich pool of talented candidates, bring new voices, experiences and approaches to the decision-making process, add depth to existing skills and ideas and, perhaps most importantly, bring the board closer to properly representing its stakeholders.

The big picture – how many women are serving on boards?

Although women represent 51 per cent of the population of Victoria, there is still a long way to go before equal representation of women on boards is achieved.

Indeed, recent research has found women are under-represented in all sectors, comprising:

  • 40% of the board members of Victorian Government boards and committees
  • 26% of the members of Australian not-for-profit boards and committees*
  • 8.4% of the board members of major Australian companies**

As the figures above indicate, the Victorian Government has made significant inroads into increasing the representation of women on its government boards and committees, outperforming both the not-for-profit and corporate sectors and hitting its 40 per cent target – up from 29 per cent – during 2003.

But there is still a lot of work to do to reach the long-term goal of 50/50 representation.

So why aren't women seen in equal numbers on boards?

There are a variety of excuses and a few valid reasons why women are still under-represented on Australian boards and committees.

Some say that suitable women are hard to find or that women don't readily put themselves forward for board positions. Some point the finger at more systemic reasons for the shortfall in women on boards, pointing to the continued existence of an old boys' network that prevents others from entering the "inner circle".

Some people say women will never achieve equal representation as wherever a woman's rightful "place" may be, it is not in the halls of power. Such people are often heard to say that "female" skills, experience and knowledge do not readily lend themselves to responsible board positions.

Still others see the problem as stemming from a discomfort on the part of some with the prospect of sharing the boardroom with people who may change in existing culture, or alter the way things have always been done, including the type of humour shared and language used.

Another reason cited is that without a history of board service, many women find it hard to prove a "track record" – and the cycle continues, with inexperience being both the justification for and the result of keeping women off boards

And then there is the age-old question of power; that is, for someone to gain power, someone else has to lose it.

Whatever the reason, it is clear that a change in culture is needed if women are to assume board membership in equal numbers – the change won't just "happen", there has to be a will and a conscious decision to make it happen.

Why boards need more women #1: Bringing different experiences and perspectives

How we view an issue or problem, and what answers we come up with to solve it, is often largely dictated by our own personal and professional life experiences. Human beings tend to go with what they know.

It stands to reason, then, that loading a board with people from similar backgrounds can make for a much more harmonious existence – it is far easier to reach consensus on the direction to head in if everyone is starting off from the same place. However, this is not, in fact, an effective way to run a board. Indeed, a boardroom is no place for bland, one-size-fits-all decision-making. Strategies and directions should be decided upon only after rigorous debate and the input of a range of people with different views and ideas. Only then can a board ensure that it has reached the very best decision.

Departing from the "bad old days" of all-male, white-bread boards can bring new voices, varying opinions and, inevitably, different approaches and solutions to the decision-making process.

Why boards need more women #2: Bringing new knowledge and connections

The connections of its members can be among a board's greatest assets. Good contacts can help a board to benefit from opened doors, better advice and a more visible public profile, which itself often leads to greater influence, respect and effectiveness.

Along with their different experiences and perspectives, women will also inevitably bring new knowledge and contacts to a board – and that can only be a good thing.

Why boards need more women #3: The gender question

Ironically, while gender stereotyping is often the reason cited for women being shut out of boardrooms, it can also be used as an argument to justify why they should be brought in.

Many people believe that there are a range of qualities that only women can bring to a boardroom – things like better communication and consultation skills, a more "caring" attitude towards the organisation they are governing, a better knowledge of community issues, and so on. Some people have even suggested that women have a greater propensity for more ethical behaviour, being less competitive and less likely to be driven by money.

These things may or may not be true. In the absence of definitive evidence either way, it is perhaps better to approach this issue with the assumption that women sometimes think about and do things differently to men and can therefore bring a new dimension to the boardroom culture.

Why boards need more women #4: Diversity = representation

Boards are put in place to oversee an organisation or facility and to provide leadership. They govern for the benefit of, and are therefore accountable to, the community at large. Women therefore represent a big chunk of any board's stakeholders – and it is difficult to represent this important group's views and needs without giving women a place at the board table.

Having women on the board also makes a strong statement about the organisation's willingness to seek out and take into account the views of all of its stakeholders.

Why boards need more women #5: Because it's the right thing to do

Recent years have seen louder and louder demands for better-run, more efficient and more ethical boards. While this has occurred largely in response to reports of the misdeeds of some large, corporate boards, there is no reason why Government and other not-for-profit boards should be immune from the demands for more community-friendly practices, better accountability and transparency and a commitment to equality.

Many organisations pay lip-service to equality but in practice, this cannot occur unless power is shared equally with women – and that means offering them (and welcoming them into) a place on the board.

Why boards need more women #6: Because it's good for business

Many for-profit companies are discovering that it makes good business sense to have women on their boards. Indeed, studies have shown a connection between organisational performance – both financial and non-financial – and greater numbers of women in positions of power. There is no reason why these principles can not apply at least in part to government and other not-for-profit boards.

Having more women on boards means a greater diversity of skills, experiences, opinions and strategies – and that means better governance. And better governance inevitably means better results.

* Woodward, Susan & Marshall, Shelley, A Better Framework: reforming not-for-profit regulation, Centre for Corporate Law and Securities Regulation, University of Melbourne, 2004
** Australian Women in Leadership Census 2003, published by the Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Agency, 2003

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