Author Archives: forbusinessake

Four myths about women on boards, exploded

The Female FTSE Board Report 2013 (subheading ‘False dawn of progress for women on boards?’) was published last week by the Cranfield International Centre for Women Leaders, along with the government’s report on Women on boards April 2013.  The Cranfield report in particular is a very good read.  I especially appreciate the way both reports explode a number of common and pervasive myths about women on boards – and about the progression of women into senior roles more generally.

Myth 1:  It’s just a question of time before more women make it to the top

Usually used as a justification for inaction, the reports clearly show that it’s not just a question of time before more women make it to the top.  It’s a question of time, plus action – and the more action that’s taken, the less time it’s going to take before women make it.

There’s been a lot of action since the publication of the first Davies report in April 2011 – taken by government, business, recruiters, investors and of course women in the pipeline.  And guess what?  The pace of change has quickened.  In fact, ‘the rise in the number of female board members in just 18 months is equivalent to the increase in the whole of the last decade’.

Myth 2:  These days, women can get onto boards whether or not they’ve got any previous experience

Usually spoken by people wanting to discredit the quality of women being appointed to boards.  In fact, ‘almost all’ the women who made it onto FTSE 100 boards this year had held board seats in major companies, with an average of three board seats each.

Myth 3: If you’re a man looking for a FTSE board appointment, forget it.  Boards are only interested in appointing women these days

Simply not true.  Men continue to dominate in the appointments to board positions; only 26% of recent FTSE 100 board appointments have gone to women.  74% have gone to men.

Myth 4:  Women don’t have the operational experience to make it onto boards

In fact, over a third of the women appointed to boards in the past year have operational roles (divisional/ regional Chief Exec and Chief Operating Officer roles).  27% have a banking and finance background, and 8% come from HR – long considered a career cul-de-sac as far as board appointments are concerned.  (Interestingly the report also goes on to say that ‘the assumption that HR is dominated by women is not confirmed at executive committee level, with women constituting 52% of HR executives’ – disproportionately low compared to the representation of women in the HR profession overall.)

Diversity on corporate websites

Looking through the external websites of some major corporates this week, three things struck me.

First, how few references there are to diversity and inclusion on corporate homepages.  Even for those organisations avowing that diversity is ‘just the way we do business’, it’s surprising how many bury diversity and inclusion deep in their careers section, well away from anything to do with customers and clients.

Second, most organisations describe why they ‘do’ diversity and inclusion in exactly the same language, whatever the sector, and however differentiated the organisations may be in other respects.  They make reference to ‘widening the talent pool’, to ‘helping people achieve their potential’, to ‘recruiting, retaining and developing people irrespective of difference’.  It’s not that I’m unconvinced by these arguments for diversity – far from it.  It’s just that such over-worked words suck from it all the passion and the excitement, and end up meaning very little.

Third, how few organisations dare to link their motivation for action on diversity and inclusion to anything to do with values and ethics.  Anxious about accusations of social engineering, soft-minded liberalism and positive discrimination, organisations have been at pains to point out that their commitment to diversity is built on the business case, on competitive advantage and market differentiation.  Yet whatever the commercial benefits, diversity and inclusion are – surely, at some level – still about fairness, and justice, and doing the ‘right’ thing.

So three suggestions for organisations wanting to communicate a heartfelt commitment on diversity and inclusion to prospective employees, clients, customers, shareholders and partners:

  • Put a link to diversity and inclusion on your corporate homepage
  • Ask employees why diversity matters to them, and use their words to bring it to life
  • Link the reason for action to values, ethics and corporate governance as well as to the bottom line.

Successful women: what’s not to like?

At Davos last week Sheryl Sandberg, Chief Operating Officer of Facebook, reminded the world of the ‘likeability’ penalty that women pay for success – that ‘as a woman becomes more successful, she is less liked, very importantly by women and men, and as a man becomes more successful, he is more liked’.

That add-on – ‘very importantly by women and men’ – got me thinking about the successful women I know, and why I actually rather like them.  Some of them I’ve known since before they were successful, and their success hasn’t made me like them less.  Some of them wouldn’t think of themselves as successful – and some of them you might not think are successful either.  But I do, and I have to say, I like them all.

So here, based on my own experience, are 10 reasons why I like successful women.  What’s not to like?

  • Successful women are usually fantastically good at their jobs.  They have to be.  Not one of the successful women I know has ever got to where she is just because she is a woman.  I like them for their ambition and their achievement and – yes – their gutsy success.
  • They are happy with themselves and who they are.  They’re self-aware.  They don’t pretend to be infallible, and they’re (usually, not always) the first to admit when they’ve got it wrong.
  • They’re not inhibited by hierarchy or fazed by power.  They’re pretty much the same person, whoever they’re meeting with.
  • They’re great at relationships and very well networked – and not only with people in positions of influence.  They have friends as well as colleagues at work.
  • They can be tough and uncompromising when they need to.  They are no push-over.
  • They’re optimistic – about themselves and their organisations.
  • They are great role models for my teenage daughter, and also for my son, both of whom found the question ‘Would you prefer to be successful or liked?’ almost impossible to answer.
  • They talk about their families, and they’re up-front and unabashed to let you know how much their children matter.
  • They’re generous with their success, giving up their time to mentor other women, as well as men.
  • They speak out about being a woman at work and about the barriers they’ve faced.  They rarely pretend it’s all been a breeze.

Four of the best

Last week The Huffington Post published its list of The 24 Best Moments for Women in 2012.  I agreed with several of them (the list included Adele – for winning six Grammys and for being a ‘body image hero’; Melissa Meyer for being appointed Yahoo CEO, and Hillary Clinton for being herself).  Whilst best moments for women are worth celebrating wherever they happen, overall the list probably had more resonance for women in the US than it did for me.   It did get me thinking though – what were the Best Moments for Women in the UK last year?  Here are four good ones, in no particular order.  But I struggled writing this.  Are they the Best?  What do you think the Best Moments were for UK women in 2012?

1                    Women on Boards becomes a big issue

2012 was the year that the low numbers of women on corporate Boards really grabbed both corporate and media attention in the UK.  A lot of coverage was given to small gains in the number of women in non-Executive directorships.  The question of quotas moved from an outlier preoccupation to a proposal supported by the likes of Richard Branson.  The even smaller number of women in Executive roles and in the pipeline to senior positions was exposed.  And with another report just out showing that the percentage of women on the Boards of private companies is even lower than those in the FTSE, it looks like unstoppable momentum for 2013.

2              Equal pay gets teeth

The UK Supreme Court ruled in favour of 174 former employees of Birmingham City Council – mostly women employed as cooks, cleaners, caterers and care staff – who had alleged that the council failed to pay bonuses awarded to staff in male-dominated jobs such as refuse collectors.  The Supreme Court ruling means that equal pay cases can now be heard in a high court – extending the time limit for making claims from six months to six years.  And the 2012 Opportunity Now benchmarking report finds that women are better represented at senior levels of organisations that carry out equal pay audits, compared to those that don’t.

3              Women win gold

With the biggest-number ever of women athletes taking part, outstanding performances by the UK’s women athletes at the 2012 Olympics and Paralympics created so many best moments – not just for women but for sport and for the world.  Who can forget the awesome achievements this year of Nicola Adams, Jessica Ennis, Victoria Pendleton, Ellie Simmonds and Sarah Storey – to name just a few?  The London Olympics also marked the first Olympics when every participating country had at least one female athlete.

4                     All-women literary shortlist

So many great books by women this year.   My personal best moments include reading Jeanette Winterson’s Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal on holiday in the sun.   And this year, for the first time ever, women are winners in all five category awards for the prestigious 2012 Costa Book Award.  2012 marks the 41st year of the Book Awards.  The overall winner will be announced at the end of January 2013 – and one thing’s for sure.  A woman’s name will definitely be on the winning cup.

On my reading list

It’s been head down these last couple of weeks preparing my final portfolio for the Tavistock Institute of Human Relations ( Practice Certificate on Consulting and Change and also facilitating the first of a series of four discussion forums on organisational resilience with heads of HR and OD from the public and private sectors, on behalf of the Whitehall and Industry Group (

As a consequence the reading matter is just piling up.  I thought I’d share what’s on my immediate list (the books I’ve started, or just bought and am particularly looking forward to).  I can’t give much insight into the books themselves right now, but if you’ve read them, or have other reading suggestions around diversity, inclusion and organisational change, do let me know.  And tangential is good, at least as far as provoking new thinking goes.

First up, Rising Stars: Developing millennial women as leaders, by Elisabeth Kelan, Associate Professor in the Department of Management at King’s College London and published by Palgrave Macmillan.  I’m interested to read this account of how gender and generation intersect in the workplace through the eyes of millennial women (also known as Generation Y, those born after 1977) and the implications for employers wanting to recruit, hold onto and develop women of this generation.  I’ll particularly be looking out for ‘what’s new here?’ that will help change practice for women and for employers.

Next, Great by Choice, by Jim Collins and Morten T Hansen, published by Random House.  I never read Jim Collins’ Good to Great so I’ve nothing to compare it with, but this book interests me because of its promise to explain how it is that some companies thrive in chaos and complexity, and others don’t.  This in turn touches on a couple of favourite topics of mine – consulting to clients in a turbulent environment, and organisational (and individual) resilience.  I’m doing quite a lot of thinking about resilience at the moment, and diversity, and how these connect, will come back to the subject another time (probably more than once…).

Third, Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, death and hope in a Mumbai slum, by Katherine Boo, published by Portobello.  I bought this because it was described in the FT as ‘an interview-based narrative in which the interviewer never appears’ and I like reading factual books that tell stories; because it’s twenty years since I went to India, and I want to understand better how things have changed, or not; also because it’s described on the back cover as ‘a beautiful account, told through real-life stories, of the sorrow and joys, anxieties and stamina, in the lives of the precarious and powerful in urban India whom a booming country has failed to absorb and integrate’.  Wow.  Incidentally the FT’s list of Best Books for 2012 itself is superb.  I’ve bought quite a lot of presents for other people from it (and like the Boo book, presents for self too).  Here’s the link:

Also on my list is Emotional Intelligence: Why it can matter more than IQ, by Daniel Goleman, published by Bloomsbury.  A classic, and the bits I’ve read have been very relevant to current discussions around unconscious bias in the workplace.  It’s not as readable as I thought it would be but I’m going to hang on in there and finish it.

Last but definitely not least, Great Expectations by Charles Dickens (the beautiful new paperback Penguin English Library edition).  I can’t believe I’ve never read this.  I saw the film with my son a couple of weeks ago, and I loved it.  Now I can’t wait to read the book.

Knowing me, knowing you

A more introspective piece this week, on the role of self-knowledge in leading change on diversity and inclusion, prompted by reading an article on ‘The Self as an Instrument – A Cornerstone for the Future of OD’ by Mee-Yan Cheung-Judge which you can access here.  Mee-Yan is an organisational development (OD) guru and was voted one of HR’s top 25 most influential UK thinkers in 2012.

Her article – now over ten years old – is about the heightened self-awareness or self-knowledge required to be an effective OD consultant.  Getting to the requisite level of self-knowledge – or what she terms ‘instrumentality’ – isn’t easy, and it doesn’t happen overnight.  It means, in Mee-Yan’s own words:

–          ‘Devoting time and energy to learning about who we are, and how issues of family history, gender, race and sexuality affect self-perception.  It means also identifying and exploring the values by which we live our lives, as well as developing our intellectual, emotional, physical and spiritual capacities’

–          ‘Get to know your fears, blind spots and comfort zones. Use your emotional comfort (or discomfort) as data in .. the work you do’

–           ‘Dedicating time to the on-going maintenance of both self-knowledge and technical expertise’

Three things struck me about the article:

First, everything that Mee-Yan wrote about the self-knowledge required to be an OD practitioner and consultant I think also applies to diversity and inclusion practitioners and consultants, and indeed to managers and leaders wanting to see change on diversity and inclusion in their organisations.

We can’t hope to inspire change in the attitudes and behaviour of others around difference, or understand the resistance that such attempts at change provoke, without first spending time and energy on getting to know and interpret our own beliefs and behaviours and reactions to difference.  I know myself that that can be pretty discomfiting, but it needs to be done.

Second, self-awareness is something that is generally left out of the skills and attributes required of diversity practitioners.  The competency model for D&I practitioners to which I most often refer – and refer others – is published by the Conference Board, and is called appropriately Creating a Competency Model for Diversity and Inclusion Practitioners. It’s an exhaustive collation of knowledge, skills and behaviours under eight business-like headings: change management; diversity, inclusion and global perspective; business acumen; strategic external relations; integrity; vision and strategic leadership, and HR competencies.

Written in 2008, it’s stood the test of time for me – until now.  Because now I feel it has one glaring omission – possibly the most difficult competency of all to acquire  – that of real self-knowledge.  Mee-Yan Cheng-Judge refers to use of the self as instrument as a ‘cornerstone for the future of OD’.  I think it’s the cornerstone for the future of D&I too.

Third, Mee-Yan’s article was written well before the explosion of interest in unconscious bias as an explanation for the slow progress being made in many organisations towards real change on diversity and inclusion.  Unconscious bias awareness activities are now all about building self-awareness and self-knowledge, and form an integral part of many an organisation’s diversity action plan.

The thing is, unconscious bias programmes promise self-awareness in 90 minutes.  I’ve been part of such programmes, and it’s true they are powerful and enlightening.  But Mee-Yan sees the development of self-awareness and self-knowledge as an ongoing journey, in effect a lifetime commitment, which I suspect is a more realistic – though less palatable – timetable for real self-knowledge.

Women experts and speedy organisations

Three cheers this week for Caroline Criado-Perez who has set up to gather and showcase the names of women experts, in response to the BBC’s recent assertion that it couldn’t find any women experts to debate breast cancer treatment on Radio 4’s Today programme.   It’s a great idea, and very simple.  Women can either self-nominate on the still-developing site as having expertise or experience – in anything, really – or can be nominated by someone else.  The first few experts up there include an oceanographer, a postdoctoral researcher into astronomy, a midwife, a university lecturer and a family lawyer.  This evolving list of media-friendly women experts will help demonstrate to the BBC – and indeed to any other doubting Thomas or Thomasina – that there are in fact plenty of women experts out there.  It’s just a question of making the effort to look.

So if you are a woman with expertise or experience to share, and are willing to speak out on your subject – or if you know anybody who might fit that bill – then you should definitely check out the site.

It’s not just the media that struggles with this though.  It’s also the organisations that the media approaches for comment.  They have their own internal lists of experts to whom a request for comment or appearance will routinely be directed.

So if you are a woman with expertise or experience, you should also ask yourself if your own organisation’s external comms team would know to come to you for expert opinion.  If not, be sure to make yourself known to them too. That way, the next time your organisation is approached direct by the media for comment, it will also have you on its own list of experts.  And organisations could take a more proactive approach themselves, refreshing their own lists of usual-suspect experts with the female talent that exists but is so often invisible in all organisations.

Finally, I’m impressed by speed and passion-over-perfection attitude with which has been set up, and the mingling of old and new media which has helped create it.   In less than a week it’s gone from an idea inspired by an old-media radio report, to a Twitter request, to the pilot set-up of an on-line organisation, to an article which I read about today in an old-media Sunday newspaper.  The idea needs some development, the site’s not perfect, but it’s already up and running.  Business just ain’t what it used to be.

Do the continental walk!

Two steps back for business this week, as EU proposals for quotas for women on boards hit the skids, and Cynthia Carroll joined Marjorie Scardino as the second woman CEO of a FTSE 100 company to step down this month.

Viviane Reding, EU Commissioner for Justice, Citizenship and Fundamental Rights, has been campaigning for Europe’s listed companies to be required to appoint women to 40% of their Board positions by 2020.  There’s been a lot of opposition from business – particularly in the UK and apparently particularly from women – on the basis that gender quotas will result in poorly qualified women being appointed to Boards to make up the 40%, and quotas in any case don’t make any difference to the ‘real issue’ of the representation of women in the pipeline to Executive roles.

On the first point, there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that there are enough talented women out there to fill 40% of Board positions right now, let alone in eight years’ time.  Three cheers then for Martha Lane Fox, founder of, who described the view that quotas result in ‘sub-standard’ women on boards as ‘patronising and sexist’.  On the second point, it seems that the quota for women on Boards in Norway and elsewhere has done little to increase the number of women CEOs in European business.  But it ain’t necessarily so.  Why not learn from the experience in Norway instead, and redouble efforts to strengthen the pipeline alongside (not instead of) the introduction of Board quotas?

Still, all is not lost, and I have my fingers crossed for a redoubling of efforts on quotas themselves later in the year. Viviane Reding’s Twitter feed from last week (@VivianeRedingEU) tells a poignant 58-word story of hope crushed but not defeated:

22 October: ‘This week, I will fight for a Directive to bring about gender equality in corporate boardrooms’

22 October:  ‘Of course, there will be some opposition.  But #Europe has a lot to gain from more diverse corporate boards’

23 October: ‘Gender balance directive postponed’

23 October: ‘I will not give up.  @BarrosoEU [Jose Manuel Barroso, President of the European Commission] will put this on the Commission agenda again before the end of November’

And talking of the pipeline, disappointment at Cynthia Carroll’s decision to step down as CEO of Anglo-American, joining Marjorie Scardino, CEO of Pearson, who announced her decision to resign in the same month (as indeed did Kate Swann, CEO of WH Smith).  With just two women CEOs of FTSE 100 companies remaining (Angela Ahrendts of Burberry and Alison Cooper of Imperial Tobacco) the high-profile business-women role models for my teenage daughter remain few and far between.

On a lighter note, take a minute to check out Hank Ballard and the Midnighters doing ‘The Continental Walk’ here:  It’ll get you singing all the way to the boardroom!

Two great reads on culture and change

First up, two excellent reads on culture and change.  Herminia Ibarra’s book Working Identity: Unconventional Strategies for Reinventing Your Career (Harvard Business Press, 2003) is a classic.  Ibarra’s a great story-teller, and she talks business (not really surprising – she’s Professor of Organisational Behaviour at INSEAD).  So she recounts rollicking tales of change and transition in the working lives of Pierre, Lucy, Gary and others, and from these develops nine ‘unconventional strategies’ for career reinvention.  Her strategies turn the orthodoxy of change upside down, and as someone who’s gone/ going through a career transition, moving from corporate life to setting up a consulting practice, I find their directness and self-acceptance inspiring.  Here are my top four:

Unconventional strategy 1: Act your way into a new way of thinking and being.  You cannot discover yourself by introspection

Unconventional strategy 2: Stop trying to find your one true self.  Focus your attention on which of your many possible selves you want to test and learn more about

Unconventional strategy 6: Don’t just focus on the work.  Find people who are what you want to be and who can provide support for the transition.  But don’t expect to find them in your same old social circles

Unconventional strategy 7: Don’t wait for a cataclysmic moment when the truth is revealed.  Use everyday occurrences to find meaning in the changes you are going through.  Practice telling and retelling your story.  Over time, it will clarify

If you’re embarking on a career transition – or working or living with someone who is – I can’t recommend this book highly enough.

This next book is a really good read too.  It’s Daniel Miller’s The Comfort of Things (Polity, 2008), an anthropological study of thirty front rooms in a south London street – or rather, the moving, gripping, full, empty, concluded, inconclusive stories of thirty people told through their possessions, their clothes, their pictures, the furnishings, the stuff of their front rooms.  Like Ibarra, Miller’s a great story-teller; I took this book on holiday with me and honestly couldn’t put it down.  It also got me thinking about the front rooms of organisations, about the cultures and values made manifest – sometimes consciously, and more often not – in the furniture, art, papers, coffee machines, flooring and lighting of the foyers and reception areas of the organisations we work with, and in the behaviours of the people who work there.  I’m not sure if anyone’s ever done a study of organisational front rooms, but if so, do let me know – I’d love to read it!