A 30% female board- a reality in sport but dream in digital?

By Shona Williams, Marketing Executive

Research has shown that companies with more diverse boards achieve better results and, when it comes to gender, having a 30% female board is the tipping point where we start to see these better results.

If you don’t follow the sports industry it may surprise you to hear that, as of last year, a mandatory 30% female board has been enforced for all publicly funded organisations. For the sports sector, this is a great and progressive step forward. Although many still don’t reach the target, it’s now a priority for each company- which will lead to transformation.

Rather shamefully, an average of only 10% of board members are female in the tech industry. So, is this mandate transferable to all other UK industries that are falling behind? Is the answer to initially enforce diversity? Or should we let the evidence of better results speak for itself?

Let’s look into some of the reasons to why female board members are so rare to find:

Firstly, there simply aren’t enough female role models which makes it difficult for young women to picture themselves as leaders. This is where the mandate would make a huge difference. With visibility of powerful women, others will feel more empowered and more capable of reaching for the top.

However, I would argue that many of the other issues holding women back may require more of a cultural shift than a new regulation could provide.

Juggling a family, or even the notion of having one in the future, is a common factor that discourages women from applying to the highest positions. Even with a mandate in place, this won’t tackle some of the fundamental difficulties women face. We need to make these positions more accessible through incentives such as flexi-time, strong child care options and abolishing negative connotations of the ‘working mum’. This way women will have more confidence to aim for board roles — hopefully encouraging less ‘drop out’ at the point where family priorities no longer fit around work responsibilities.

In addition, a lack of technical skills and low entry numbers into the industry (only 35% of all roles in digital are held by women) means that women aren’t filtering through to the top. Perhaps it should be more about tackling issues at the bottom of the pipeline: encouraging women to enter the industry in the first place with a focus on mentoring and upskilling them. This will create a larger pool to choose from.

Mentoring- the solution

Many women and the board alike may also believe in a need for shrewd, tough business skills- traits women are presumed not to carry. Therefore, a woman may not apply, and the board may not hire them, if they are perceived as too ‘gentle’. It’s the old “if you’re not a man, you must at least act like one to do well” story we’ve all been fed.

But research suggests- and businesses are starting to see- the importance of altruistic, softer people skills in decision making too. Rather than focusing on male v female, perhaps it’s time to focus on a diversity of skills and personalities; a diverse board regardless of gender. Not only is a variety of POVs and backgrounds beneficial to business, naturally a more diverse mix of people and gender would make it up to key leadership positions.

My feeling is that having a mandate in place is not enough for the digital industry — companies need to believe it’s better for their business in the long run. Whilst the sports industry has been a great example of how to encourage diversity and bring action to a difficult and slow-to-resolve problem- which is truly admirable- I believe that for digital, we have a few other elements we need to fix before going down the same route.

The solution for us? Education, change and communication. This hopefully will lead to organic growth and a change in attitude over time. Making board roles more accessible for females, attracting more women into the pipeline, and upskilling and mentoring them on their journey up… all these small changes will eventually, if we’re all dedicated, make a big change to our next generation of digital leaders.

By Shona Williams for Women in Digital

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