The Financial Times journalist Lucy Kellaway has a fortnightly column, ‘Dear Lucy: Work problems answered’. In yesterday’s edition of the paper the ‘problem’ was: ‘Do I need to hire a second-rate woman to join the board?’ The person asking the question – ‘Non-executive director, male, 58’ – continues:
I chair the nominations committee of a large company in a male-dominated sector. We have one (highly effective) woman on the board, and are looking to recruit another. In the past two months, I have interviewed more than a dozen women. I cannot see any of them adding sufficient value round the boardroom table. Do I go on looking? Take a second-rate woman just to look good? Or do what my gut tells me and take the best person, even though he’s a man?
Implicit in this is that ‘more than a dozen’ women deemed themselves fit for a board role with this company, and were – at least in this person’s judgement – wrong. They were deluded. Lucy Kellaway’s answer is intriguing. The first half of it is very sound:
Taking a second-rate woman will never make you look good, so you can forget that. Instead you should ask where this determination to hire a second woman came from. Was it to win brownie points? If so, I wouldn’t bother. Unless your company is FTSE100 or FTSE250, no one (yet) cares very much.
Or was it so that your (highly effective) woman has some company? If so, you can forget that too, as it sounds as if she’s getting on rather well on her own, and (possibly) even likes it that way.
Or was it because you recognise that you have some gaps on the board and thought that a woman was more likely to fill those? In this case if you have found a man who fills those gaps, choose him.
Or is it because you’ve been reading those surveys that set out to prove that companies with more women on their boards perform better financially? I’d be very careful of these pieces of research. It’s terribly hard ever to assess exactly what contribution is being made by non-execs, as there is so much else going on.
Did you spot the assumption that the proposed new female director would be a non-executive director? Why are campaigners for gender diversity in the boardroom not more bothered about whether the diversity relates to executive or non-executive directors? The answer is simple. Becoming a non-executive director is akin to boarding a gravy train, while becoming an executive director isn’t. Becoming a non-executive director is the workplace equivalent of marrying a rich man – a lot of reward for minimal effort. It’s little wonder so many women are lining up for the roles.
The second half of Lucy Kellaway’s answer (below) is a variant of a tired old feminist argument in this field – that male directors suffer from ‘groupthink’, and there’s something special about some women, they’re ‘in a different mould’ to use her phrase, which will bring value to a board. If this were true, don’t you think – as I do – that competitive pressures would have forced boards to recognise it decades ago, seeing that companies with more women on their boards performed better? The evidence, as we know, points to the contrary.
Yet whatever one thinks of these studies, there is one thing that can’t be denied: it is a disaster to construct a board in which each new member thinks pretty much the same as each existing member. To avoid this, hiring a woman is just the thing. Not because females and males always think differently but because such is the dash to hire women that all the obvious ones – i.e. those who think just like men – have already been snapped up. This means anyone who is recruiting now has a choice between the second-rate ones who think a bit like men, who you should avoid at all costs, and first-rate ones who are in a different mould entirely.
It’s time to go back to the headhunters and make them work harder for their swingeing fee. Tear up whatever narrow specification you gave them and tell them that you want a woman who is curious, fearless and fiercely intelligent.
It’s also time to examine that gut of yours. It sounds as if it might be the sort of gut that feels happiest when surrounded by guts of the same variety. When the headhunters find this clever, independent woman, gag that gut and hire her.
The second half of the letter may be summarised as, ‘Ignore what your judgement tells you, and hire a woman without the experience and expertise required to strengthen your board’. And so another woman boards the gravy train…