Mishcon Academy: Digital Sessions podcast – Women On Boards

Posted on 30 September 2020

The Mishcon Academy Digital Sessions

Conversations on the legal topics affecting businesses and individuals today

Victoria Pigott

In this episode, why does it matter if there are women on Boards? Tokenism.  Is it necessarily a bad thing? And should women change in order to be accepted? Hello and welcome to this Digital Sessions podcast.  I’m Victoria Pigott, a Partner and Litigator at Mishcon de Reya and I am delighted to welcome Dr Rebecca Newton, Organisational Psychologist, Senior Visiting Fellow at the LSE and CEO of Coach Advisor.  Thank you for joining me today. 

Rebecca Newton

Thanks for having me.  It’s a pleasure to be here. 

Victoria Pigott

So, the first aspect of this topic that I’d like to cover is a really basic one.  It was back in 2011 when the UK first embarked upon a drive towards greater gender equality at the top of British business.  And as of earlier this year it was reported that a third of Board positions in the UK FTSE 100 companies are now held by women.  So, getting women on Boards, why does it matter?

Rebecca Newton

Yeah it’s a great question.  There’s a lot of research that’s been done and we know from research that having women in positions of leadership in organisations and having women on Boards makes a difference to the performance of the company, to the culture of the company and to the effectiveness of the Board or senior teams themselves. 

Victoria Pigott

And when you say it ‘makes a difference’, it improves productivity? It improves how employees feel about their jobs? Is it that kind of tangible thing that improves?

Rebecca Newton

Yes like I said, it impacts culture.  It also I mean, in terms of the most tangible outcomes, it improves business performance.  So, for example one study that was done of 11,000 companies in Australia over a six year period, they had a look at women in leadership positions and found that a female CEO for example increased the market value of that organisation by 5%.  Which is worth nearly AU$80 million on the ASX 200 companies that they were looking at.  And then where they saw an increase in the number of women in other key leadership positions by 10% or more, there was an increase in the company’s market value of 6.6%.  So, the reason I like this study I mean, it’s a broad study, it’s a longitudinal study and it just shows the difference that it can make financially to a company’s performance but then there are other factors, like I said, around culture, around people’s experience, engagement levels and while it is great to see progress there is much still to be done.  So, in this study for example, they found that more than a third of the 11,000 companies in the study still didn’t have a single woman on the Board. 

Victoria Pigott

Yes.  It follows from that that whilst it’s important to get women on Boards, are we focusing in on the wrong place? So, there’s a limited amount of influence that Board members have, would it be more useful for us to start looking at the executive and the way in which they actually influence the way organisations are run?

Rebecca Newton

I would say ‘yes’ to both.  So, looking at the executive, I would hope that companies are as committed to seeing women in leadership positions at the executive level and at all different layers of leadership throughout the organisation, as well as at the Board.  And so, when it comes to day-to-day running of an organisation, absolutely, the executive would have significant influence.  Let’s not underestimate the impact that a Board has on an organisation and therefore the importance of having women in those positions as well. 

Victoria Pigott

Yes having women in those positions but what about the issue of tokenism?  So, people putting women onto a Board because they’ve been told to and that woman serving no other purpose than being a woman, having no influence, not really engaging, the men on the Board are able to say, ‘Look, we’ve got a woman’ and all the people who know that actually a properly influential woman would be doing something, are then prevented from having a really influential woman on that Board.  So, Cranfield University did a study about… they do a report, a FTSE Board report each year I think and they found that women serve shorter tenures than men, so, 3.8 compared to 5 years and they are less likely to get promoted to senior roles.  I think what I’m saying is, there’s a real risk that some women are being placed on Boards for symbolic value and as a box-ticking exercise. 

Rebecca Newton

Unfortunately, I’d say the answer is ‘yes’.  That absolutely is the case in some, well, in some organisations but also in some pockets of organisations.  So you know, I like to believe that that is not the reason.  I think that having guidelines around the number of women on a Board or on a leadership team are useful to make sure that action is taken, that the conversations are happening, that there is momentum.  What is the responsibility of, say, the chairperson or the CEO when it comes to executive teams or leaders across the organisation as they’re looking to put women into those roles, is to make sure that it’s not tokenism.  There are situations where, what do you do, as a woman? So, if you feel like you’re being invited onto a Board and it is tokenism, do you take that position or not? Do you challenge it? Because on one hand, as a woman you want the numbers to increase, you do want women to be on these Boards and I think what’s important is to remember that you have a voice and so to know that even if it was done originally for reasons of tokenism, that there is going to be an environment and that you speak up and just assume that it’s not tokenism almost and just take your place at the table and you know, that’s easier said than done, but how you start I think really matters.  So, for women who are on Boards, who are listening so, when we’re coaching women going into leadership positions we often find that they might be struggling with confidence and that might come from believing that the position is tokenism or just questioning themselves in general.  What we found in research is that it’s not actually, we look at other people and we see that they have great confidence, but actually when you go and ask those people what it is that you know, how they feel about their roles and their leadership responsibilities, that they actually describe choosing to be courageous rather than that they necessarily have it all together and feel confident all of the time.  But on the question of tokenism, I think that what this highlights is the need to think about culture and engagement on the Board and to be very clear about the process of determining this rather than just assuming that by appointing women to Boards, that that is going to be all that we need to do.  So, we need to create an environment where everybody on the Board feels that they have the opportunity to speak up.  What we know is that one of the things that holds a Board back from being effective is if there’s a culture of walking on eggshells or people who don’t feel that they have the right to speak up or that they don’t have all the information that they need.  So, I think in the same way that we determine what we want an organisation’s culture to look like, we need to make sure that we are clear about here is the culture of our Board and working that out at a behavioural level.  So, some of the things that we can do there you know, some of the things that we found helpful are having a Board launch, getting things off in the right way because anyone who has sat on more than one Board, the difference between them is, it can be so different and so making sure that you’re very clear as a team, as a Board member team, what it is that you want in terms of how everyone is able to show up and to contribute, not just who’s around the table.  And then the other thing that can be helpful, in the same way that we have leadership development programmes and leadership team programmes, that equally we are having Board development programmes which is to understand each other’s strengths, preferences, natural styles, expertise you know, not just having the chairperson introduce or send a bio, a CV, here’s this Board member.  But actually really understanding each other and setting the team dynamics right and having those kind of engagements.  Not just coming straight to the agenda points and following through on what needs to happen technically, but also thinking how do we as a Board want to work together?

Victoria Pigott

So, I think the take-home from that is if you are offered a Board position, even if you feel that you might be being offered it because you are a woman or because of some other quality that you have, you should take that role and get a seat at the table and start making your voice heard to make the change that perhaps the next person isn’t put onto the Board because of tokenism.  And the fact is, that once you’re there they can’t say to you, ‘Oh, well you were only brought onto this Board because you’re a woman’ and you can actually start having a voice.  Whereas if you turn down the position because you feel that it’s tokenism, you’re merely a lone voice which is short-term and they’ll forget about and they’ll find another woman who may not make the noise and hopefully the change that you might. 

Rebecca Newton

Yes.  I mean, I think that women need to choose their own path and are best placed to know what’s right for them or not.  So, I wouldn’t want to just blanket statement say, ‘Do take the role’.  But my personal belief is that Board members that are there to make a difference and this is one of the areas that you need to make a difference so if you’re in the conversation and you do have a seat at the table and you do have a voice, then go in there ready to do that.  And you can do that with wisdom and think about you know, difficult conversations, having difficult conversations well, might be one of the most important skills of Board members.  So, be prepared that you might have to have some difficult conversations and they don’t need to necessarily happen all in one go like you need to choose the right time and place for those things.  I do think that it’s not binary.  It’s not necessarily tokenism or not, in that some people on the Board might feel that it’s tokenism.  Some people around you maybe who didn’t get invited onto the Board, might feel that it’s tokenism.  But other people will not believe that and see your expertise.  I mean, you also have to remember, as a woman there’s more than a few of us around so, do take some confidence and encouragement for the fact that even if it has been driven by this need to have increased number of women on Boards, you specifically have been invited to join that for a reason.  So, take encouragement from that and then use the voice that you have to make a positive difference so that the people coming after you don’t have to experience that. 

Victoria Pigott

What follows from that? I was thinking about this in relation to men and women being very different.  I mean, to state the obvious.  Not all women are the same.  I feel greater alignment with certain men than I do certain women.  Take for example, the well-known business women that we see on TV, people like Karen Brady or Deborah Meaden.  They’re a particular type of woman, so, tough, feisty, confident, assertive, some of which you might say were masculine qualities.  Do you think that women have to change in order to be accepted?

Rebecca Newton

Absolutely not.  So, I brought out a book last year Authentic Gravitas, and it’s looking at who stands out and why and by gravitas we’re thinking of, who are the people who have weight and influence? Their ideas are taken seriously and how can we do that and be that person, in a room and in a meeting and in a team and still have a sense of being ourselves? And authenticity really matters and it really matters in this season that we’re in as well with so much uncertainty and challenge you know authenticity is one of the strongest predictors of wellbeing.  Having said that, authenticity is often misinterpreted, meaning that we think that it’s about just, show up exactly as I am and I can assure you that for me personally, you wouldn’t always want me just exactly as I am, in whatever mood I am with my three kids running around and my schedule but it’s not about expressing every emotion and feeling as you have it when you have it.  That’s not authenticity, it’s understanding yourself so, being mindful of your own feelings and what you think and knowing your values and what matters to you and living and acting in accordance with those values.  So, ask yourself the question, if someone else were to describe me, let’s bring it to the context of the Board, if someone were to describe me, what would I want them to say? What kind of contribution do I want to make? What matters to me? And sometimes we need to adapt our style, we all need to adapt our style when working with different people.  So you know, the research shows that one of the strongest predictors of how other people perceive a leader in terms of their effectiveness, the difference between an average or a highly successful leader, a large percentage of that is down to their adaptability.  Are they able to adapt their style when working in different environments and with different people.  So, we all need to do that.  But do we need to fit into a certain mould of assertiveness? Absolutely not.  So, I know some very strong female leaders who happen to be you know, they’re quite softly spoken, they’re not aggressive in their tone or their manner and yet they’re unbelievably effective and so, I think that you can have gravitas, that you can be a powerful influencer on a Board and be yourself and at the same time it’s important to be mindful of how in society we do tend to see the difference between assertiveness in between men and women.  It’s a challenge for women but it’s also a challenge for men to challenge themselves in terms of what they’re saying and thinking and reflecting on.  And for other women when we’re perceiving other women as well.  There’s been some studies where they describe an individual who’s a very strong character and very assertive and when there is a male name in there, one of the words that people reading it – men and women – will use to describe that person is leader and when it’s a female name in there, one of the words that is used to describe them is aggressive.  So, it is something to be mindful of, that we do have this challenge in our society and like I said, it’s not just how men perceive women it’s also how women perceive women sometimes but I think for all of us it’s important to seek feedback, to consider are we having the impact that we want? Do we need to adapt our style? What that looks like? And everyone’s on a development journey to be more effective and that goes for everyone at the Board table too. 

Victoria Pigott

I mean, you’ve touched on quite a prickly subject which is women helping women.  Successful women are often seen as single-minded or selfish or only in it for themselves and not supportive of other women coming along.  So, is this something… obviously, it’s something you’ve noticed, what do you think could be done to improve the way in which women support other women?

Rebecca Newton

I’ve been coaching leaders for probably gosh, it’s more than 15 years now, close to 20 and I actually don’t come across women like this very often.  So, for the most part I find that women are encouraging of other women and do want to help them and to bring other women through.  Are there people who are competitive and not wanting to bring other women through? Probably, they are probably out there, I would say, if you’re surrounded by someone like that maybe avoid them or talk to them openly about how you are feeling about that because it may be that their impact is not actually their intention, which is the case for a lot of us you know, all of us all the time in some ways.  So… and I think we also have to be mindful that sometimes that’s come from you know, those women might have had to fight extremely hard to get to where they were and to be competitive and then have come through in a culture where individualism and competitiveness has been encouraged.  Think about it like the requirements and expectations of women in leadership is relatively recent in the scheme of things and so some of these women have been coming through in areas where it wasn’t a requirement or it wasn’t an expectation and organisations in general, there’s a lot of industries where the culture is individualistic and competitive and what we know the studies are showing time and time again, is that collaboration makes a huge difference in terms of organisational performance, leadership effectiveness and that means working together to tackle complex problems, bringing in people with different expertise.  Diversity obviously isn’t enough we have to have inclusion as well.  So, back to the culture point around how, it’s not just who’s in the conversation, it’s are they welcome to share their perspective which we want to be different? We want difference in you know cognitive styles as well as expertise and different backgrounds.  So, the question of women, how we can bring women along, is to believe that collaboration does make a difference.  I would say, think about how you’re actively doing that so, rather than just wanting to be a mentor and wanting to bring women through, make sure that you’re introducing or joining things where you can practically outwork that so at any one point in time that you do have some women that you are actively mentoring. 

Victoria Pigott

One of the very controversial subjects that I do want to raise is, and I think it may be about perception, it’s about having children.  I speak from personal experience when I say that I didn’t see myself and I didn’t feel I was treated any differently to men until I had a baby and other than the time out of the office, why it is that coming back from maternity leave is so difficult.  Is it actually having a baby, or is it just bad timing in the sense that usually, not always but usually it’s right in the middle of someone’s upward trajectory in their career and the time out of the office removes that momentum? Do you think there’s anything specific that we can do to prevent the impact that many women find maternity leave has on their career trajectory?

Rebecca Newton

Yes and I think some organisations do this very well.  Like you said, the question of is this about having taken maternity leave or is this a question of having x amount of time out of the business in terms of your momentum? I’d say, the pre-work that you do in stepping out and the leaders around you do so, like for anyone listening, if your maternity leave isn’t something that you’re dealing with, there are women around you probably where this is something that will come up for them.  The pre-work that you do before maternity leave like planning how things will work when a woman wants to come back to work and how that will work and to be strategic about as quickly as possible rebuilding that momentum is important.  The other thing that you know, I’ve had three sets of maternity leave and one thing I’d say which is important for women who are going on maternity leave, but it’s also important for people around them to understand is you don’t actually know how you’re going to feel about coming back to work until you’re in that position and until you are deciding when to come back to work and after you’ve had the baby and started maternity leave.  So, I’d just encourage organisations to make sure that this isn’t just box-ticking of you know, the kind of return to work plan and things but having meaningful conversations with women as individuals, making sure that we are as flexible as possible, clear that we are as supportive as possible, that we’re excited to have them back and want to do everything that we can in order to support them as they regain momentum with their work and their business.  The other reason this is important to do is that increasingly men are taking longer periods of paternity leave as well so this isn’t just a women’s issue, this is something for all parents and for other people as well I think there’s things where people want to step out and take periods of time away from their work and the more flexible we can be as leaders in an organisation you know, we are more likely to create environments where there is real mutual trust and respect and you’re likely to keep the best people or to have them come back, to have them be successful in the organisation.  So, I’d just say be really intentional right from the outset.  Be strategic about it but also be as flexible as possible. 

Victoria Pigott

One thing I have noticed, I’m stereotyping but I have noticed it, is that successful men have often – often have wives who don’t have careers which mean that the women they work with are different to the women they’ve spent the most amount of time with.  Do you have any practical advice for women who might be struggling with men who can’t see beyond the gender stereotypes, of the 1950’s, but it still happens today. 

Rebecca Newton

Yes I guess it still happens today.  I think as the years go on, we will see that less and less.  With increased flexibility means that women are less likely to have to make a choice between, ‘Am I working or am I not?’.  That there will just be different ways of working and different ways of engaging with organisations.  So, I think that that over time will change anyway.  If you’re a woman and you’re facing, it’s hard to say in that I think it can be different.  So if you find that you’re not respected, my starting point would be to choose courageous conversations, have some sense of positive intention that there is… they’re not intending to be treating you a certain way.  My choice would be to have the difficult conversations with them, wisely.  Seek out mentors within the organisation who you think may have had some kind of similar experience or, and it doesn’t just have to be women as well so, it could also be going to men who you feel don’t treat you like that and who do have your back and want to encourage you and do promote you.  Some of the people who’ve opened the biggest doors for me, many of them are men as well as women and so, I’d say find people who you trust, who you think they are there to support you and to encourage you and to cheer you on and to open doors for you and ask for their advice about how to handle the situation.  Ultimately, if you’re in a dynamic it depends on proximity as well doesn’t it? So, if that’s just your one person that you report to, that’s a very difficult situation.  If you find that you are speaking up, you’re doing it in a constructive way, you’re getting wisdom and input and advice and trying to change the dynamic and the culture around you and it’s not working then I would say go somewhere else like into a different part of the business or transfer sideways.  Whatever it might be to look for something else that is not going to hold you back because there are a huge number of people out there who will want to see you move forward, will treat you with the respect that you deserve. 

Victoria Pigott

One of the things that I’ve also noticed and there’s been quite a lot of press on it in relation to the global pandemic and countries that are led by women.  It’s said that they have systematically and significantly better outcomes in relation to dealing with Covid, so, Germany, New Zealand, Taiwan and Finland are four that I’ve read about.  The fact that women leaders have apparently dealt with it better, is that coincidence or do you think there might be a real correlation?

Rebecca Newton

Well, what we know from the research that’s been done in business, is that where we have women in leadership we have more successful performance.  So, it’s possible that that translates at a national and a global level when we look at politics.  I think what will happen, I mean obviously there are so many layers of complexity and so many factors contributing to why some countries are faring better than others in this season.  I think one thing that will be really interesting is to see what comes out of this.  So, the research that is being done now and will continue to be done around what are the factors that made the most significant difference? It will be really interesting to watch and see. 

Victoria Pigott

And my final question is specifically just about gender so, on Boards or in organisations.  It’s often labelled gender and diversity  which seems strange given that women are 50% of the population rather than a minority group and we’re sometimes classed as CSR – Corporate Social Responsibility - so, women as a charity case.  If you could see one change in businesses, organisations, in relation to women and getting women into leadership roles, on Boards, in the executive, what would it be?

Rebecca Newton

It would be healthier cultures because it is not enough just to have the women in the positions at all layers of leadership.  We want to see that you know, a lot of my client organisations have goals for 2030 of 50% women in leadership positions across the business.  I’m concerned where they don’t have clear strategies for how they’re going to achieve that and it needs to coincide.  So, I think that’s the right thing to do is to have goals, to have strategies for how you’re going to achieve those goals and it has to coincide with what kind of culture changes do we need to make to leadership teams and to the organisation as a whole in order to make sure that we see the positive returns of having women in leadership positions and that those women in leadership positions have a positive experience.  That they feel they are able to contribute and bring their best self to the organisation, to those roles, to the meetings and to question why hasn’t that happened before is probably a good way of looking at that if we’re just doing it because we know that we need to now.  So, I would say the biggest change that I would like to see is to make sure that there is alignment around healthy teams and healthy cultures not just the number of women in these positions.  There’s a lot about toxic cultures and toxic environments now.  That is true and it is such a difficult season for women where they feel they are either having to fight to prove themselves or having to step into a position where it is that sense of tokenism that we spoke about before.  There is some research suggestions that women, for example, are more likely to expect work to speak for itself and if we’re less likely to shout about their accomplishments and so they may be overlooked or they may have been in the past.  So, there’s some work around culture and expectation and leadership development and providing women with an opportunity to think about how they can bring their best self into these roles as well as for men and women around them to be bringing them through and creating the right environment for them to really flourish and you know there’s also some suggestions that women are less likely to speak up about their career goals.  So, to speak up for what they want, to put themselves forwards you know for example like, looking at a role that a woman might be less likely to put herself forward for it if she doesn’t meet all of the criteria that’s listed.  When for some men, you might find that they are you know, again, there’s some women who are like this as well but there are some suggestions that men are more likely to think, ‘Okay, well I’ve got five out of eight’ or something like that.  But if women are less likely to speak up about their career goals, thinking that they’ll be promoted for their good work but not necessarily asking for what they want, that can be wrongly, it can be misinterpreted as a lack of ambition and so these are all the things that I mean when I talk about culture.  What environment are we fostering? What climate are we fostering to make sure that we don’t just have women in positions, we don’t just have women on the Board, but we have the right team dynamics and we have the right culture to make sure that having that dynamic of having these women on Boards and on leadership teams brings about all of the great benefits both at individual and team and organisational levels that we know that it can. 

Victoria Pigott

Thank you, there’s an enormous amount in there for us to think about and to work towards.  I’m afraid that’s all we’ve got time for today but I’d like to say a huge thank you Rebecca for joining me on this Mishcon Academy Digital Sessions podcast. 

Rebecca Newton

Thanks for having me. 

Victoria Pigott

In the next episode, my colleagues David Cummings and Greg Campbell will be talking about the senior managers’ regime and the FCA’s perspective on managers’ responsibilities flowing from Covid, diversity and the Me Too movement. 

The Digital Sessions are a new series of online events, videos and podcasts all available at Mishcon.com.  If you have any questions you’d like answered or suggestions of what you’d like us to cover, do let us know at digitalsessions@mishcon.com.  Until next time, take care. 

Mishcon Academy: Digital Sessions are a series of online events, videos and podcasts looking at the biggest issues faced by businesses and individuals today.

Join Partner Victoria Pigott and Organisational Psychologist, Senior visiting fellow at the LSE, and CEO of CoachAdviser, Dr Rebecca Newton, as they discuss women on boards and specifically why it matters, the issues of tokenism and quotas, and whether or not women should change in order to be accepted.

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