Men in charge – why there is so little diversity in the board room

10/03/2011 § Leave a comment

Spot the odd one out - the board of Cadburys that agreed the take over by Kraft

I had to laugh. A letter was published in the Independent newspaper on the subject of the lack of women at board level in companies. Here’s an extract: ‘…I suspect that there might just not be the numbers and, at times, the talent available within the female pool …To be a successful business person you have to be racing fit – intellectually and physically sharp enough to think on your feet, able to get up at the crack of dawn each day… able to keep ahead of the game and with the ability to keep delivering work that is fresh and dynamic. Sometimes women are not able to fulfil all these points because of family commitments…”

No doubt in his childhood this man was fed a rich diet of fairy stories about brave knights rushing about the country rescuing swooning damsels in distress from dragons….

After I read this letter I thought I should write a blog about this subject. I was confident I could provide some insight into this area and present neat conclusions. However the more I have delved into it, the more complex it becomes.

Yet some things are pretty clear to me:

– The men who sit on the boards of major British companies represent a very limited spectrum of society. They are generally white, from a narrow age group (50-65), university educated and have lived their lives in business.

– It is not just women who are excluded from this closed shop. Where are the young, the retired, the social workers, the students, the nurses, the shopkeepers, the single mothers living on welfare?

– Diversity is very valuable when considering complex matters. Ted Happold, founder of the engineering firm Buro Happold, said “The best work is done by the most diverse group of talents who can still live together.” Thus the current state of affairs is not useful to society or to the businesses themselves. It helps explain why so few businesses act as if they really care for their stakeholders.

– Our foremothers and forefathers fought great battles for freedom, to make our politics more representative. They would be disappointed to find so much power still resting in the hands of an unrepresentative elite.

– There has been centuries of male dominance over women. According to some commentators, we have had 5000 years of patriarchy. For Christians, even God has a male form! At the same time this is starting to shift – the age of patriarchy is coming to an end.

– The basic structure of the limited company, with shareholders and a board at the top, hasn’t changed in 200 years. In that time there have been massive changes in the world, including the exponential growth of corporations in size and influence, and huge changes in the way human beings communicate.

– The prevailing cultural myth is that the board is in charge of the organisation; they are the captains of the ship. Yet it is ridiculous to imagine that 12 or so people can be “in charge” of 100 people, never mind 1,000,000 (Wal-Mart). All they can do is pull some levers and trust that the ship will respond accordingly. But organisations are made up of people, not metal and wood. Their behaviour is not predictable.

– It can be pretty stressful being on the board of a large business, particularly when the world is changing quickly around you. You do get a lot of power and money, but you are deluged with information and you have to maintain the pretence that you are in charge, when you know you are not. This can create enormous tension.

How do we make sense of all this? Partly no doubt, the lack of diversity is a hangover from the old days when it was normal for rich men to be in charge.

But there also seems to be something about the very nature of the role. The lack of diversity on the board is a symptom of the way we have set up the corporate structure, based on our cultural myths. We feel the need to pretend someone is in charge. Yet this is strange when we look at the way the non-human world works. Imagine going into a rainforest and asking “Who is in charge, please?”

Looking at this, you start to wonder, who would ever want to be on a board of a large company. You have to be driven to get there in the first place, and once there you have to become a machine, processing large amounts of information and pretending to still function. You must leave your emotions outside the door. The wearing of a dark suit, and the sitting around a dark table, symbolizes this – everything becomes sombre and serious. Who would want this?

The fact is that many of the people we would want to participate at the highest level of decision-making wouldn’t have the time, the energy or the will to sit on a board. And many really talented people, including many women, who could cope simply have better things to do with their lives.

Real change will come, I feel, only when we re-think our concept of the corporation, when we get away from top down hierarchies, when we adopt governance structures and systems that release the control over the people in the organisation and free them up to give of their best. But this is a subject for another blog….

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