The Role of the Chairman of the Board to Promote Diversity

This year, I was privileged to participate in a World Economic Forum Committee of Chairmen meeting in Zurich. The WEF has an amazing convening power-think Davos. This Zurich gathering was composed of chairmen and women of some of the largest, most robust companies in the world.

My remit was to speak to them about diversity and inclusion and the role of the board chair to ensure the organizations efforts.

The commitment by the chairs to diversity and its role within their organizations seemed genuine and thoughtful. Admittedly there were member companies that had no or only one woman on their boards of directors. But the concensus was a need to have multiple perspectives and cultural awareness which under pins the purpose of D&I.

What struck me was the discussion of some of the leader’s experience of putting a woman on their board. One chair from a large consulting company reflected on their first attempt to bring a woman on board. It did not go well he reported. That lead me to wonder why that well-meaning attempt failed.

Several possibilities for this failure present themselves:

1) Motive. A company’s desire to put a woman on the board can stem from outside pressure such as at institutional investors urging, activist shareholder proposals, reputational optics and avoidance of risk and financial liability. A real possibility emerges that this misguided effort can lead to an actual misfit of skills, culture and poorly made choices for board members.

2) Coercion. A board feels under attack from many fronts and feels coerced into bringing a woman on board. They dislike that sense of forced outsider pressure, don’t see the need to disrupt their well-functioning board, and believe the pool of qualified candidates is too small. They have never had a problem going to their informal networks and resent this intrusion.

The woman chosen may never get fully integrated into the in group.

3) Confirmation bias. An unintended consequence of 1 and 2 above. The board members don’t want a woman in the first place, made hurried decisions or resented the intrusion of someone not like them or a legal quota. There may be an unconscious belief the woman or women chose are less qualified. Confirmation bias means they will see unqualified behavior to prove what they already believed. Generally, dominant groups are assumed to be competent until they prove they are not; non-dominant groups are assumed to be incompetent until they show they are competent. The woman is trapped by preconceived views of their performance.

4) The ‘one only’ problem. There is only one woman appointed by the board, not a critical mass (three or more). The one is over scrutinized, her mistakes less tolerated, seen as a token and treated as such, or a victim of prove-it-again bias. She must prove herself, not once, but many times before she is viewed as qualified to be there. Research shows that with three or more women the over scrutiny subsides and disappears.

5) Style difference. Inexperienced or unaware board chairs and members may not realize that sometimes communication styles differ by gender or nationality or culture.

For example, some speak in a high context mode, others in a low context mode. This is the difference between long explanations and “I have three things to say”.

Board chairs need to be vigilant about the interrupters, those who talk over others, the acknowledging of some comments and not others, those who are over heard and others who are under heard. A woman on the board may sound different (i.e. less competent) than the more normalized speaking of the men because of socialized speech patterns.

A vigilant chair ensures that credit for good ideas goes where it is due.

Women may use what is known as ‘disarming mechanisms’ which are verbal means to disarm others so as not see a woman as aggressive or assertive. These include ritual modesty or conditionality such as the phrase “I am not the expert on this”. The woman who uses that phrase is the expert but plays down her expertise to avoid going unheard or demeaned in the face of looking like a show off or know it all.

The board chair and the leadership of an organization play a crucial role in ensuring the successful creation of a diverse board or management. New tools and awareness are necessary. To be fully conscious of the dynamics of diverse groups is key to fulfilling the important mission of a high functioning, creative board of directors. The Chair must be forthright about why diversity is so important to the vibrancy of the company and challenge those who resist the changes needed to fulfil this mission.