Need for more women on boards must be juggled with necessary skillsets
OPINION:Board membership by men and women must be in the organisation’s overall best interests, writes MAURA QUINN
THE NEED to increase the number of women on boards both in Ireland and abroad continues to attract considerable comment and debate. In the UK, gender targets were introduced last year to address the lack of women on the boards of FTSE companies. They seem to be working, albeit slowly.
Change is also afoot in the EU, with justice commissioner Viviane Reding proposing legislation requiring Europe’s listed companies to achieve a 40 per cent quota of women on their boards by 2020.
The proposal is proving divisive within the European Commission, having already been met with staunch resistance from Britain and a number of other EU countries which argue it should be left to national governments to address. A number of individual commissioners are also said to oppose it, including Máire Geoghegan-Quinn.
As the debate in Europe rolls on, in Ireland we are beginning to see a change, with directors now recognising that gender imbalance in the boardroom is an issue that must be addressed.
For many, this may be regarded as too little too late, but the focus should be on recognising the barriers and concentrating on finding a fair solution to the gender divide.
In recent research by the Institute of Directors in Ireland on its members, directors – male and female – identified the dominant number of men at board level as a barrier to women accessing the boardroom. This is not surprising and many would argue that men have monopolised the boardroom for far too long.
Directors also identified a lack of support for women to move in to board positions and there is also a sense among directors, predominately men, that the pool of suitably qualified women for board positions is not large enough, a perception no doubt, that many suitably qualified women would disagree with.
We are, however, slowly moving towards a consensus of opinion and an acknowledgement at least of the barriers facing women. The next logical step must focus on how best to overcome these barriers and, ultimately, how to remove them.
The rationale for introducing mandatory quotas is clear, if examined solely in terms of increasing the number of women around the boardroom table. But the issue of board diversity is more sophisticated than simply making up the numbers.
A well-functioning board is one that recognises the benefits of diversity. A diverse board is more likely to ask the difficult questions, encourage constructive debate and challenge the executive. Diversity brings a range of perspectives, experiences and expertise to discussions, helping to avoid a groupthink mentality.
A diverse board is about much more than gender. The aforementioned research found that 90 per cent of directors believe that diversity of skillset, age and nationality are as important as gender to the functioning of a board.
Moreover, 86 per cent of women surveyed agree that new board appointments should be based on the specific skills requirements and not gender alone. This is a key point.
If we are to avoid the mistakes of the past; if we are to ensure women are appointed not solely for their gender but on merit; if we are to formulate boards fit for purpose, we must ensure that all board appointments are based on skills needs and not on any other basis.
That being said, the issues faced by women in reaching board level must be resolved. The number of female directors in Ireland is growing and the Institute of Directors has seen a noticeable increase in women joining the organisation in recent years, which is encouraging.
We must capitalise on this growing trend and focus our efforts on supporting – through training, mentoring and professional development – the participation of women in the boardroom and in senior executive roles.
If we are to avoid a token “tick-the-box” approach to appointing women to boards, then we must ensure that women are appointed on merit.
By broadening the debate, we move away from restricting board diversity to a narrow gender agenda and concentrate instead on increasing the competency and effectiveness of boards.
Maura Quinn is chief executive of the Institute of Directors in Ireland