How to win enemies and alienate people…one reason there aren’t enough women in the boardroom

images-1I spend a lot of my working life in boardrooms.  What I do for a living means I am often required to have tough conversations with senior people.  Most of them are men.   That has never bothered me, nor has it hindered my ability to be good at what I do.  I’m judged for the quality of my thinking, and not my gender.

Which, is why I found myself prematurely walking out of a swanky dinner at Claridges this evening. Hosted by a global search firm, the event was meant to mark the launch of a network to attract female talent into the FTSE boardroom. I was invited.  So far, so good.  I was looking forward to hearing the keynote speakers and networking with interesting people over a glass of champagne. Even better.

Until, that is, one of the keynote speakers stood up and spent the first five minutes doing a Romney. You know, alienating 53% of the audience. Who were female. Who were meant to be the next generation of talent.  Who – might I remind any head-hunters reading this blog – were potential candidates and/or clients.  This man ran data centres. He explained we wouldn’t know what a data centre was – his tone implying that data centres were too technical  for our pretty little heads. The fact that several accomplished MDs for UK tech firms were present seemed to have passed him by. Then he mentioned his ‘other half’. We were urged to feel gratified that this Neanderthal twit had introduced his ‘little woman’(yes, those were the words he used to describe his spouse), because clearly women are not professionally complete unless they are also sleeping with the boss!

I am afraid to say that common sense overtook courtesy at this point. I voted with my feet before the main course was served.  On the high-speed train home, I reflected on the experience. I have been to many dinners and networking events in the City, often very male dominated.  I can honestly say I have never been offended by the discussion, no matter how robust or different from my own view of the world.  Gender quite simply, wasn’t an issue.  What set tonight’s event apart?

For me it had to be the old-style misogyny and out-moded thinking. This man was representing purveyors of talent, who claim to actively support diverse leadership teams.  Really? As their spokesperson, I certainly wouldn’t want him representing me in the market. Instead of engaging with his audience, he simply confirmed a highly negative stereotype. His archaic leadership model has no currency in today’s workplace, nor is it borne out by the many women who sit on boards in the UK.  This is currently 15%  according to the latest report from Cranfield.  Women also make up 49% of the workforce here in the UK, across both public and private sector firms. Approximately 21% of start-ups in the UK are female-owned or led.

Personally, I think it’s time for a new paradigm. To paraphrase Project Eve's wisdom…Instead of lamenting ‘the glass ceiling, it’s time we built a new house'.  Search firms, investors, networks and employers all have a role to play, as do the men and women who make up our workforce.

What do you think?  Should gender matter?  

6 COMMENTS

  1. Wow…that it happened in financial services (not that its right but having worked in the field for 20 years or so I’m pretty sure I saw it all)  isn’t as surprising as that it was an event to recruit women into leadership positions!?! 

  2. Hi Kim, thanks for the comment.  To be honest, many of the women were slightly bemused by the event.  It proved to be a comedy of errors, not least because of the choice of speakers. What I learned from it is – more than ever – I choose to succeed on my own terms.  That was all the illumination I needed! :)

  3. Hello Jill, I think that is a valid point and I will definitely take a look at your blog. One of the most hilarious moments was when another keynote speaker (also male) – explained that ‘paranoia’ was one of his corporate values – not sure I’d want to be in that environment – the boardroom would be bugged for sure!

  4. Lisa – that is a priceless moment. Makes you wonder if people listen to themselves. When I read your description of the event I was wondering if they “poured on the pink” too. Have you ever been to event geared toward recruiting talented women where the room, drinks, and take-away materials are all pink? Unless it’s a breast cancer awareness event ….To me that’s a sign that the group is too focused on gender stereotypes and not interested in identifying talent. 

  5. No, fortunately the only pink was the champagne. For me diversity is about so much more than gender – and some organisations need to think broader.  Candidates of different age groups, type of experience and culture all can contribute significantly to the boardrooms of the future – as you say, talent comes in more than one shade.

  6. Your experience is a real life example of why it is so difficult for organizations to shift their picture of leadership — even when they claim they want to.  If the current leaders value the “old picture” it’s unlikely observable changes will happen from the top down. You may be interested in our recent blogs about “The End of Men…as Leaders” and how organizations need to address the “Having it All” problem: Any Progressive CEO’s Out There?