Socialising Business – increase number of women on boards?

29 Oct

Cameron’s latest plea to companies is to get more women into the boardroom. The Coalition government is obviously desparate to find ways of stopping company executives paying themselves excessive bonuses ( 49%in some cases) when the economy is stagnant, unemployment is growing and growth is not. This seems a bit of a cop-out when what is needed are legislative, regulatory and structural reform not just of finanical transactions but perhaps also of company law. Socialising business cannot just be left to individuals and more principled practice – if government has no role in governance frameworks we are lost.

It is also ironic that Cameron’s solution is dependent, not on his government, but on women who have been excluded from the boardroom for years on the grounds that they are not pushy or hungry enough to survive.  Yet more research by Harvard Business School, yet again calls for women to get tougher, be more assertive and single minded then they will get a seat on the board- in fact women would be more more attracted to financial services and the boardroom if the men made some effort to change. 

The issue is not whether women are hard enough to enter the boardroom but whether politicians and business leaders start to recognise the dangerous consequences of ‘male’ only cultures, where impression management and cultural conformity to the  bottom-line totally obscures the need for an intelligent analysis of short-termism and the impact of forms of financial innovation that have given innovation a bad name. 

Women in business earn on average 20% less than men and in my experience are not so masochistic that they are desparate to work in the city. It is true that when women sit as boards members they do tend to question the impact of practices, judgements and systems (read Enron account)more than many of their male colleagues, who appear more concerned with following conventions. Male cultures often are compliant cultures – which is one of the reasons why perfectly civil guys when in the company of their mates become macho (read Tony Blair’s diaries/watch Paxman etc). However, critical scrutiny is usually not welcomed within the boardroom, unless it is chaired by a woman, those who voice concerns over practices or who want to unravel risks are  usually viewed as irritants, mavericks or outsiders. In such an environment, those who alert their colleagues to risk and dangers are not listened to.

Charles Handy  told an audience in London Business School some years ago that if you really want to change the attitudes of dominant men, speak to their working daughters. Daughters he said have the power to ‘speak truth to power’ and could tell their dads that governance in the boardroom is just as important as it is in government  – and that society depends business finding a way of acknowledging  ‘social value’ and local connectedness within corporate strategy would make a difference to the company’s reputation and with more robust national governance, their survival.

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