When will sex equality come to the boardroom?

06 March 2015


With International Women’s Day coming up on Sunday 8 March, a professor of HR management asks when female business leaders will get a better deal in the workplace

Christine Naschberger

Carolyn McCall at Easyjet, Mary Barra at General Motors and Alison Cooper at Imperial Tobacco: all female CEOs of high-profile international corporations. However, what such success stories tend to cloud is the male-female imbalance still very much present in our boardrooms.

But change is coming. Women’s presence on the boards of FTSE 100 firms is now more than 20%, compared to 12.5% in 2011. While those figures show that women board members are still very much in the minority, they do prove that there are enough competent female managers around to tip the sex equality scales away from male domination.

For that to happen, the prickly problem of stereotypes needs to be tackled. The business world is still prone to believe that women’s nature does not suit the boardroom, that they become pregnant too often and that they only get top jobs to appease sex equality campaigners. Female managers also risk being ousted more easily in male-dominated industries and are most likely to access top management positions when an organisation is in decline.


Another obstacle is the constant pressure of being observed within the company environment. That can exert heavy psychological pressure on women in top management posts. It would be naive to think that simply because there are more female board members, sexist behaviour and harassment have been eradicated.

The challenge, then, is to spur attitudes within firms to catch up with the evolution of the statistics on female managers.

One way of doing this involves coaching or mentoring for women so that they can cope better with the situation they find themselves in. Avoiding isolation and being able to exchange issues with a person of trust is important.

Employers should also address the lack of female middle managers in the leadership pipeline. The “glass ceiling phenomenon” leads to a distinct lack of qualified women in middle-management positions able to take over top management positions. When a woman does gain access to the boardroom, or ultimately becomes CEO, the prospects for other women within the organisation improve greatly.

Perhaps the most radical and controversial solution is that of quotas. For some, imposing quotas simply serves to strengthen the stereotypes such measures are supposed to combat. For others, there will be no significant change unless firms are forced to welcome a certain percentage of women on to their boards.

Even among researchers, opinion is divided on quotas. Some experts see them as a way of achieving parity in the workplace. Other specialists feel that quotas are the wrong tool, as they risk placing less qualified and less experienced females in positions of responsibility beyond their skill sets. Those who are for quotas consider that they are probably the only way to change behaviour and mentalities.

Within firms, the views are just as polarised. Companies that have already appointed female directors stress how they bring a fresh approach and act as significant role models. Those opposed to a quota system denigrate women in top positions as being simply window dressing.

Despite such differences of opinion, more and more countries have now adopted a quota system for company directors. Norway, an innovator in the field, now has over 40% of women directors. In Latvia, a healthy 28% of board members are females, the same level as France and only slightly more than Sweden and Finland. The lowest positions in the world league table on the question go to Qatar (0.3%) and Saudi Arabia (0.1%).

While quotas do seem to succeed in getting more women onto boards, do they actually make a difference to women’s careers on the whole and to how firms are run? The answers to such questions are not easy to find.

To begin with, excluding perhaps the exception of Norway, countries do not yet have enough female board members to test their effect. While it may be the case that a single woman on a board of directors can make a difference it is estimated that only with 30% of women directors can influences on decision making be felt.

What those in favour of quotas hope is that they will help establish equality in terms of salary. Logically, if more women sit on boards and the number of female CEOs rises then the gulf between male and female wages will fall. Such a development would then also alter some of the stereotypes, particularly concerning maternity leave, that affect women’s careers.

For women to get a better deal in terms of career advancement progress needs to be made on three levels: government, business and society in general. Working hours need to be more flexible so a life balance can be achieved. Firms should set up women’s networks so female workers can help each other reach career goals. The State also needs to back up quotas with other effective sex equality legislation. But ultimately, women’s status and condition within firms can only change if men change their attitude to women.

Christine Naschberger is professor of human resource management at Audencia Nantes School of Management, France.

Have your say

On Monday 9 March, the Chartered Management Institute (CMI) will launch a special, nationwide survey to ascertain which practical interventions best encourage diversity and inclusion within businesses. The survey will explore in depth managers’ attitudes to this mission-critical issue in an increasingly globalised and interconnected world.

Commenting on the upcoming launch, CMI head of research Patrick Woodman said: “We know that diversity delivers results for businesses. The evidence is clear: by embracing and promoting a wide range of people, it helps businesses better understand their customers, helps organisations retain talent and supports creativity. Diverse workforces also avoid the perils of ‘groupthink’ and unethical decisions. Yet what has been less clear for employers seeking to embrace diversity is how they might best ensure they stop excluding and start including a wide range of employees.”

Insights will keep you up to date with how the survey develops, but check back at the CMI website on Monday for the launch.

In the meantime, for further gender-diversity resources, check out CMI’s Women in Management page.

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