By Dudu Msomi
Traditionally, boards of directors in most developed countries and South Africa were composed exclusively of white males.
Owing to this social exclusionary practice, much criticism has been directed at those companies’ boards of directors, as there is concern that “old boys’ clubs” fail to exercise the appropriate measure and independence of judgement to board decisions. Gender diversity brings a number of vital benefits to the boardroom.
Women bring unique skills and fresh perspectives that broaden discussions. Women, as a group, bring a collaborative leadership style that benefits boardroom dynamics by increasing the amount of listening, social support, and win-win problem-solving. The collaborative style does not mean women shy away from controversial issues because numerous studies have proven that women are more likely than men to ask tough questions and demand direct and detailed answers.
Research done in the USA and Canada on women on boards has found that boards with a larger proportion of women are less inclined to let CEOs dominate proceedings. Women have to overcome huge obstacles to stand out in order to be appointed in terms of their accomplishments and career history. As a result they bring higher expectations of a board member’s role, exercising independent influence over management and thus enhance the board’s performance overall.
Thus globally, there is advocacy for greater demographic diversity among corporate boards of directors. Diversity is also a critical component of transformation in SA.The concerns raised about board profiles stems from the increased belief that diverse groups are likely to be more effective since different perspectives will improve discussion, creativity and decision-making. The reason most commonly attributed to the poor representation of women at corporate level is that companies do not think that women are qualified for board service.
There is also the excuse that companies do not know where to look for qualified women. Women are also criticised for their tendency to hold support roles which are not traditionally targeted when recruiting for board positions as line management roles are preferred and regarded as having a higher status than support roles.
Organisations need to develop women into direct line experience positions with profit and loss responsibility. But then again so what if women prefer marketing or human resources, the so-called support positions, as career paths? Should these functions be seen as less important to the success of companies? In the era of triple bottom-line reporting, the ‘softer’ considerations should not be absent from discussions on corporate strategy and direction as they are in fact hallmarks of long-term sustainability of a company.
In South Africa, legislation attempts to facilitate the increase of the numbers of women, not just in the lower rungs of the organisation, but on corporate boards as well. The underlying principle of employment equity is concerned with rectifying the social and economic effects of historical discrimination that resulted in the wasteful under-development and under-utilisation of a large proportion of the population including women. In the context of transformation in South Africa, as well as the skills shortage in the workplace, it is becoming increasingly important for companies to actively support the advancement of women as the traditional pipeline is not adequate to meet the need for independent, non-executive board members recommended by King Report 3.
The shortage of skill is advanced for selecting the same people to numerous boards. It cannot be in the best interest of these companies to have individuals sitting on their boards as well as hundreds of others which are sizeable and complex in nature. Such occurrences make a mockery of the dearth of talent assertion they furnish. The scarcity of women with the experience, credentials or skills to sit on boards is not as acute as the prejudice that stems from the fact that women lack the demographic similarities with the boardroom gate keepers and shareholders that “think director, think male”.
Companies are complacent about promoting board service to a wider audience and ensuring that individuals are aware of steps that they should take in order to build a path towards a board position. Research on the glass ceiling undertaken in a number of countries indicate that women’s advancement to top-level corporate executive and, in due course, governance positions is dependent upon companies’ success in providing high potential women with those key developmental opportunities traditionally given to high potential men.
Unless companies take steps to eliminate their biases, women leaders will likely be misjudged regardless of their levels of preparation and aptitude for corporate leadership roles. Ultimately, the performance of a board is dependent on competent and honest individuals who act with integrity, taking into account all stakeholders’ interests and bringing superior judgement to business decision making for the best interest of the company.
Motivations for increasing women representation on boards also includes the need to reflect their increase in the labour force, their growing buying power and their ability to influence purchase decisions beyond the traditional ‘female’ purchases such as groceries, cosmetics and clothing. Women also make up a growing percentage of small business owners who buy goods and services from larger companies. Globally companies are restructuring their boards of directors to mirror the gender and racial diversity of their customers, employees and stakeholders.
However, despite the growing numbers of educated women entering the workforce, their increasing buying power and influence, women continue to hold only a small proportion of leadership positions in business. Some companies have established strategies to recruit directors of different cultures, race and backgrounds especially those that procure services from government.
The concerns raised about the dearth of women in board positions should be appreciated as a business concern, not just a socio-political one.
Dudu Msomi is CEO at Busara Leadership Partners, visit www.busaraleadershippartners.co.za