board room: Woman in the board room – Is it mission accomplished? not yet

There is so much said about the need to have women in the board room, so much research. Countless men and women have become believers in it purely because the intellectuals, the academics and safe keepers of the corporate conscience are saying so. Is it really so? Is having a woman in the board room the solution to the panacea of gender inequality?

What I have realized is that having diversity is not the same as being equitable in providing equal opportunity. You cannot forget that lack of diversity exists because there is human discretion at play and human biases influence behaviour. And introducing one woman into a group of otherwise seven men does not change the biases – it just changes how those biases go to work. How those biases can engage in the age-old game of power play and establishing supremacy.

I will share three instances. A board where the Chairman changed and looked at the board with 2 independent directors brought in by his predecessor. The first step, bring in your own person as an independent director. Next step, pick on the woman independent director brought in earlier, try to sabotage re-appointment. When that failed, bad mouthing within the organization. Add to it, using ill-found basis to harass her in her other professional engagements, accompanied by sweet suggestions of leaving this board ‘because it is not worth it’.

Next example, a board where a woman independent director is the chairperson. Her male counterparts include people with many more years of experience and people representing very deep pockets. A meeting includes several assertions by the experienced men on how they have handled issues of a much greater magnitude and how they have all the answers. Email correspondence includes an uncanny chain of them endorsing each other’s views and ignoring the woman’s views.

The third is from a conversation between heads of ‘forward leaning’ organizations, on adding gender diversity to their boards. Comments include ‘the woman has to be extremely meritorious for us to justify adding her to the board’, ‘she really needs to bring a specific skill set that we otherwise will not find in a male candidate’ and ‘we will add one first and then see how she performs over a year before advocating this step to other boards’. The need for a woman to prove herself worthy does not require that she be good at her work. It requires that she be better than the male counterparts. And when she has proven herself to be worthy enough for a seat at the table, she still needs to remember her ‘place’.

A few months back, I read a very interesting concept that talks about the three layers of progress for women on boards – first is the Breaking In part where you start to get women onto boards. Next is the Critical Mass phase where you try to get more than one woman on each board. And then, there is the stage of Influence where women get into leadership positions and where real power resides. Leadership positions include not only having women as chairs and lead independent directors (where such a role exists), but also as chairs of key board committees like the audit and remuneration committees, which are considered the power committees. There apparently exists an unwritten practice that the women should chair the stakeholder’s relationship committee or the sustainability committee or similar.

India and most of the world are still at the phase one, trying to bring women into boards. Unfortunately, we set the bar so low by requiring just one woman on a board – sending the signal that bringing that one woman would be enough. What started as “let us make a beginning”, has quickly become the end goal. A similar “target” that baffles me is how gender balance is defined as having women form 30% of a group. I joke about it and say maybe it is because women are so much better than men that you need just 3 women to balance out 7 men. But the fact is that women form roughly half of the talent out there. It is time to raise our sights and set targets that are truly representative. True gender diversity and a state of true equitability require that women move beyond the peripheries to yield real influence on the culture, the actions and the decisions. The concept of having women in leadership positions is a powerful one and while it is important to celebrate the few women who make it, it is even more important to remember that this is just a beginning, not the end.

The writer is a Private Equity Investor, Board Member and Founder of WinPE.

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