My previous two posts (here and here) offered a bit of an overview of what’s happening around the world with board quotas now. Today I’d like to share some of the insights I received when I conducted polls for both men and women on this subject.
In order to get a better sense of the experience of others, and to see how well the statistics quoted in the media stand up against anecdotal evidence from people I know in real life, I invited my network from different countries to answer questions about women’s experience on boards, men’s experience with women on boards, and both groups’ views about board quotas. And, having worked extensively overseas with leaders of local and multinational companies, global perspectives are always very important to me.
To my surprise, the women who participated in my poll were either neutral or in favor of board quotas. It was the minority who spoke against them. Less surprising was that the majority of participating women who commented acknowledged that their board experiences were predominantly on non-profit boards.
To date, I have observed that women have more likely served on advisory boards and the boards of non-profits than on the boards of public or private companies. Unless they have been a founding member of a high-tech start-up, an angel investor or involved in the venture capital community and a venture capitalist, it’s less common to see women on the private boards of start-ups and fast growing small/medium businesses. I believe that this is because:
- We are still in the infancy of having women on our corporate boards, that women who are ready to serve are still not as visible as they could be to the boards where they are poised to succeed and that gender diversity has not been perceived as good governance until very recently
- Women have often been labeled and/or associated with stereotypes related to social responsibility or nurturing, making it more natural to get a seat for an advisory and/or non-profit board.
One noteworthy statistic that came from my poll of women is that 89% of women who participated expressed an interest in serving on a public/corporate board. Although my poll reached a relatively small group, I think, to a degree, that accurately represents women in general who have extensive leadership experience and a breadth of business knowledge. Where it may not be 89% of all women who would be interested in serving on a board, I’d wager that it is a majority of women who have demonstrated a successful track record of leading.
Although the women who participated in my poll were not opposed to board quotas, I was not surprised that most of the men who participated were—despite some participants acknowledging that they’d served on boards with zero women. One participant expressed his reasons in words that evoked The Washington Post article I’d cited, “Having a quota instantly (and often erroneously) devalues the female board member, much in the way affirmative action admissions have the same effect on minority students.”
I was glad to see that 100% of participating men said that they believe that gender diversity benefits boards. Again, this is reflecting the views of men in my extended network and with whom I have never experienced resistance, but a welcoming of collaboration with me as a peer and/or as their trusted advisor. Unanimously, all concur that while they welcome women represented at the board table, the focus is on having the best candidate(s).
Beyond the broad sweep of whether they favored board quotas, here are a few quotes from poll participants that I found especially interesting:
I would love to serve and add value to a board. Unfortunately, I believe that quotas are necessary and should be used at this time for women to even be considered. The board selection that I have seen in the southeastern U.S. for private companies is based on the executive team’s connections and are composed of 90+% white males. (Woman, US)
I have served on boards, but they were both companies I owned… I am for quotas – otherwise we’ll never get there. (Woman, UK)
I am mixed on quotas: I know they are not a good solution to issues, but at the same time quotas get things moving in the right direction. For once I am not unhappy to be part of the population profiting from a quota! I am currently on the board of one non profit and one private (soon to be public) company. (Woman, France)
I am currently serving on a board for a nonprofit dedicated to helping pregnant and postpartum women who struggle with addiction. The board has only one man and the other eight are women. Each board member was chosen based on experience and on the particular viewpoint the individual brings to the table. We have a lawyer, a public relations director, an addiction counselor, an Ob/Gyn physician, an insurance executive, a human services director, a nutritionist, a fundraiser for the YMCA, and a business woman. I am not a fan of board quotas but perhaps my position is colored by the fact that our board is already loaded with women. (Woman, US)
Perhaps I’m being hopelessly optimistic about human nature here, but I generally take the view that one can’t tell others how to live. If women (or any other population groups) are deemed to be under-represented in a particular context, I’d be interested to know who is determining what the “correct” representation is, and what that “correct” representation really is. (Man, US)
Companies need board members that helps them, not to fulfill a quota which we can start to see in politics and now in Boards. This dévaluates (sic) Board membership as a whole not just female board members. (Man, France)
The absence of women on boards is a serious problem, but I don’t believe compulsory quotas are the most constructive or effective way to address this problem. For behavioral changes to have enduring benefits, we need to address the root causes of why their (sic) aren’t more women serving on boards. Enforcing quotas merely addresses the most obvious of symptoms, but not the root causes. (Man, US)
When men and women can interact as equals that combination of intellects, of perspectives, of insights truly elicits the greater potential to multiply our humanity and our intellectual power where 1+1 can be more than 2. An all male board has blind spots. An all female board will have blind spots. Mix up the sexes and the board will NEVER be perfect because both men and women are by nature flawed but a mixed-board will certainly have fewer blind spots than a single-sex board (IMO). To be perfectly cynical however, I am not so certain that even attempting to have a board with as few blind spots as possible is ever in the top 10 desirable characteristics of board composition either in government or industry. The older I become the more cynical I have become about the character exhibited by boards and other shared power structures in industry or government. While knowledge unarguably grows exponentially, wisdom it seems has not grown since the dawn of mankind. (Man, US)
…Within the overall goal of increased diversity let’s keep in mind that competence, commitment and character are the trump cards. I find we can identify plenty of women and minority candidates these days without resorting to quotas. Quotas paint the governance process into an unnecessary corner, constraining the drive to build productive, Decision-Ready boards who can actually help the organization be better at delivering on its Mission… (Man, US)
I’m so grateful to have these voices join this important conversation. If you missed the opportunity to participate in my polls on the subject, your comments are very welcome on this post. I’ll continue examining this topic.