Glass ceilings and Jimmy Choos

Why a shift in expectation, rather than applying quotas, could get more women on boards …

Glass ceilings and Jimmy Choos

On a recent trip to Malaysia to speak at the ground-breaking  conference, The Women Director’s Convention, held by the NAM Institute for the Empowerment of Women (NIEW), my host respectfully asked whether I’d mind her friend ‘Jimmy’ joining us for dinner.   “Wonderful” I replied, donned my usual comfy fit-flops, and off I flopped …

When the identity of my fellow diner was eventually revealed as the global shoe icon Jimmy Choo, rather than the adulation to which he’d no doubt become accustomed, I greeted him with apologies about my choice of footwear.  Why?  It wasn’t as though I’d left this season’s finest back at the hotel, and anyway, would wearing his wonderful creations have made me a better dinner companion?

Mr Choo, of course, wasn’t troubled in the least, and he kindly reassured me of such, swiftly and genuinely, putting me at ease and able to get the most out of a relaxed evening of conversation during which the shoe mogul was simply a native Malaysian who had returned from his home in London to set up a shoe making academy.

We do so often pre-suppose the expectations of another party, and believe we have to conform to (or even exceed) these to be accepted.  And isn’t it so often proven that our own expectations were unfair or at least incorrect?  We also rarely apply our own values in this type of situation, fearing the worst.  Was Jimmy Choo wearing his own hand-made shoes that evening?  I’ve no idea, I didn’t look, and I’ve no doubt if I hadn’t been so keen to mention them he wouldn’t have looked at my fit-flops either!

A shift in expectation is needed

Whilst at the Conference in Malaysia I was honoured to share the stage with Women on Boards Founder, Claire Braund and Randall P. White, author of  the book Breaking the Glass Ceiling.   The concept of the glass ceiling is well acknowledged and understood, and Randall’s aim through his book was to explode the ‘long-held myths’ and to provide practical advice on how to smash the glass ceiling altogether.

Could it be suggested, though, that for as many times as the glass ceiling might be created by an organisation, it may may also sometimes represent a pre-judgement that could actually be incorrect?  Perhaps some boards would welcome women to apply, but they fail to attract the quota they’d really like to achieve?  In that case could a different judgement (a shift in expectation) actually remove that barrier altogether?

Could it be that some women (in some cases) do not attempt to progress to the board because they expect a negative outcome, so give up before they are rejected?  Whether perceived or real, are women sometimes expected to conform to a man’s way of doing business to be accepted as worthy of the board, and therefore they simply opt out?  I don’t seek in this blog to suggest that glass ceilings don’t exist – in some cases undoubtedly they do.  However I do think it’s worth highlighting that a shift in expectation (from all parties) could encourage more women to apply for board positions, and this could be fuelled by an improved awareness of the organisations where boards will genuinely value the contribution of women.  This is  unlikely, in my view, to be addressed through applying quotas, and in fact the introduction of quotas could actually serve to hold this progress back …

Clearly, introducing quotas will make a difference to the overall proportion of women on boards – if organisations are required to appoint women in senior positions then of course they’ll have to.  But who’s to say that a quota will trigger women in their droves to clamber for those new board positions anyway (particularly if the aforementioned pre-conceptions do exist?).  According to EU data, many women simply don’t want to work on boards;  and according to recent research published in the UK Telegraph in October 2012,  1 in 5 have said they’re happy to remain  off the board.  Equally, some organisations still don’t recognise the need for a gender balance across their boards.  I’ll quote Josef Ackermann, CEO of the Deutsche Bank, who suggests

“appointing more women to Boards will make them prettier and more colourful”.

Let the cream rise to the top

“Companies in crisis often hire a woman boss, not to try and turn things around but to take the rap”, Sunday Times Feb 2011

Perhaps organisations that are positive about engaging women on boards need to be given the opportunity to step forward;  helped to give out clear, positive signals to women, not only that they do not differentiate between men and women (that has to be a given), but that they genuinely welcome and value approaches by women who aspire to progress.  Perhaps it is this simple to start with – by encouraging boards to lead by example, ‘the cream will rise to the top’, enabling women to migrate towards organisations where they’ll truly be nurtured, and therefore really given the opportunity to make a difference.

The alternative, through applying quotas, could result in the impact of women on boards becoming  stifled with the fear or perception of ‘tokenism’, even if this doesn’t really exist.

In my mind, the organisations that recognise the true business potential of encouraging women to join their boards can achieve two things.  First, they will rightly achieve the competitive edge – why should that be stifled by some kind of false equilibrium implied through applying a quota?   Second, they stand as exemplars as they will demonstrate best practice through evidence that their ‘positive towards women on boards’ policies have been good for business.  I quote an article in the Financial Times :

“Women have become probably the greatest neglected resource in business, both in their market potential as consumers and in their productive potential as employees.  It is a fundamental weakness of business models that were designed for a male-dominated world.  We need a revolution in thinking.”

Assuming organisations that positively engage women are prepared to share the secrets of their success, surely others will then follow.  A rise in active sponsorship and advocacy programmes is already showing signs of making a difference in gender balance on  boards and, as a result, companies’ bottom lines are growing;  more of this is undoubtedly needed, alongside the need to highlight and acknowledge these successes so more will follow.

This ‘lead by example’ approach may be a longer game than applying quotas, however it will address the deficiency of women of boards bottom-up, providing a significantly stronger platform for sustained improvement, avoiding the risk of a smoke and mirrors solution which has the potential for masking the fundamental need to change the expectations of women as well as the organisations who may, or may not, be keen to employ them.