Women and the board - times are not a changing

28th June 2004, Comments 0 comments

A new survey has highlighted the reality in most of the boardrooms in Europe's top companies - women board members are few and far between. Natasha Gunn reports.

From seemingly promising starts, very few women continue on and up on their career paths to reach board level in Europe's top companies - something we probably all knew but didn't have the hard facts to support.

Mirella Visser, president of the Women's International Network, Amsterdam, and her fellow board members in the European Professional Women's Network set out to bring the debate from the emotional to the rational.

The result, a pan-European survey of the numbers of women at board level in Europe's top companies, was carried out earlier this year by Egon Zehnder International on behalf of the European Professional Women's Network.

Even Visser still was not fully prepared for the conclusion of the survey, which she described as "most worrying" when she presented the results of the first European Board Women Monitor to the media in Amsterdam recently.

Women occupy only eight percent of corporate boardroom seats across Europe within the top 200 companies surveyed. The figures also showed a strong north-south divide, with the Nordic countries, excepting Denmark, having the highest percentage of women at boardroom level.

Scandinavian countries take the lead

The trail blazers were all Scandinavian countries, with Norway topping the list with 22 percent of women on boards, and Sweden with 20 percent. Finland came in third with 14 percent.

Coming in on middle ground were France with six percent of women on boards, the Netherlands with seven percent and Germany and the UK both with ten percent. The overall percentage for these countries was still around the European average.

Italy lagged behind with the lowest score in Europe – just 2 percent. Belgium and Spain both with three percent and Denmark with four percent didn't do much better.

Visser feels that the results have blown away the myth that things are changing.

"Things will not change just like that," she said, noting that Tokenism, having one woman on the board, is widespread. Visser smiled wryly as she named this the "we already have one" phenomenon.

A majority of the companies surveyed — 62 percent — have appointed at least one woman to their boards while only 28 percent have more than one. Norway came up trumps in this respect with 70 percent of the companies with women on their boards having more than one woman at supervisory board level.

Majority of women on Dutch boards are foreigners

The survey also looked at the nationality of the female board members and, for example, almost 60 percent of the seven percent of women on Dutch boards are foreigners — primarily from the UK or US.

Business sectors where women representatives on boards were highest were in retail with 12 percent, and the telecoms with 11 percent.  With only five percent, the food industry showed a surprisingly low number of companies having female representation at board level.

If the figures for European boards seem low, the figures for women on management committees or in the top levels of company management were even lower — around five percent on average across Europe — which undercuts one of the standard comments that time will solve the issue.

Trudy Maas: We may solve women problems but may end up with a diversity problem

Looking for channels through which progress could be made, Mirella pointed out that, "Identifying that pipeline is questionable. But even if being on an executive board does not guarantee a position on the final [supervisory] board, it certainly helps to have had operational management experience."

In the Netherlands the number of women in the pipeline is even lower than the low number of women on boards. However one of the many paradoxes is that, even in countries where female representation on boards is highest, there are very few women in top management. Norway has only nine percent.

Where will the next female board members come from?

This is a paradox yet to be solved. Where the current women board members came from seems to be country specific. For instance in Germany and France there is evidence of union involvement and in France and Italy family involvement. A couple of the women on Dutch boards have come through political channels with the rest coming through business or academic routes or a combination of these.

How  more women can get onto supervisory boards

Guest speaker at the survey results presentation in Amsterdam, Trude Maas one of the two women on Dutch bank ABN-AMRO's board, the survey's corporate champions in the Netherlands, saw the need to craft policies and cultures which support women.

"The best practices are in Norway, and we could learn something from them," she said. "Currently Norway is preparing their companies for the legislation ahead where forty percent of supervisory board members must be women."

In the US, positive action and legislation have had a good effect and the US boasts 13.6 percent of women on their corporate boards after a recent study of Fortune 500 corporate boards.  Only ten percent of these companies have no women board directors compared with 38 percent in Europe.

Moving beyond tokenism

But Maas, who also sits in the Senate (Upper Chamber) of the Dutch parliament, reminded those present that the issue isn't just about women." We may solve women problems but may end up with a diversity problem," she said, suggesting that the best way to get more women on boards is to make sure they are chosen for qualifications and experience rather than being part of the "quota".

Eivind Reiten, chief executive of Norsk Hydro, the Norwegian metals and energy group told the Financial Times that companies such as his should be the ones to avoid this by becoming better at bringing women on to the board.  Reiten pointed out that, "One problem for the private sector is that many women prefer to work in the public sector, seeing it as more friendly and flexible.

Focusing on the corporate governance debate in the Netherlands, Maas pointed out that a dominant male monoculture sets the wrong role models, hampers regaining trust and fuels the fear that a corporate world might stop being 'connected'.

"The code on corporate governance in Holland, 'Tabaksblat', offers great opportunities for improving diversity," Maas noted. It will do this through limiting the number of supervisory board positions taken by one person, usually a white, middle-aged man of the 'old boy's network'. She recommends, "Dare to be authentic and keep away from politically correct nominations."

Visser believes the answer in the Netherlands is to work through the Dutch employer's federation, the VNO-NCW, an organization which boasts the membership of eighty percent of Dutch companies and which negotiates with government for businesses in the Netherlands.

"We can have them organise a network, a talent pool for top women in the Netherlands," said Visser. "First we would connect these women – connect these companies and have them become part of the so called old boy's network and provide supervisory board training courses – done by top business schools, as they do in Norway."

She concluded, "Board women need to lead the change to get away from tokenism, and having women at supervisory board level projects an image. Women need more line-management experience as they tend to go into support roles. Companies need to focus on leadership development programs for women."WIN member


Natasha Gunn is the editor of Expatica HR, a website providing news and information for HR professionals.


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