Does demanding/enforcing gender balance in boards end up demeaning women board members rather than shattering the glass ceiling? originally appeared on Quora - the place to gain and share knowledge, empowering people to learn from others and better understand the world.
A few days ago, I attended an awards shindig for non-executive board directors in London. I was invited because I was in the long list of nominees although I did not get any awards. There were over 600 invitees in a ritzy ballroom of a Mayfair hotel, and a small percentage, perhaps around 5-10%, were women.
Within minutes of my arriving into the ballroom, a man, also wearing a name badge, came up to me, read my name badge (which listed two of my boards), and without so much as introducing himself, said to me: "So I see you are already on a board. I am not, har har! I do not have your advantages, you see. I am male and pale. Here is my card. I am a PR professional so if you see something, email me!" And just as soon as he had appeared, he vanished.
It has taken me some self control to not write his name here, you know, just to give him some PR, but I will say this. A man with the charm of a boor, no university education, and uncertain experience in, it has to be said, PR, thinks, and does not hesitate to say it aloud, that a woman he does not know, a woman with an Oxbridge PhD and relevant serious experience in risk, technology, and branding somehow got a board role because of her gender and ethnicity.
What I did then was to turn on my heels and tell the bunch of women behind me what just happened. They asked who he was and I told them. They rolled their eyes knowingly. This is apparently not an uncommon thing for men to say to women.
You can see why I struggle with the question of affirmative action or quotas for women in corporate and other boards.
There is a personal and a structural challenge here.
My meritocratic self says women need no quotas or affirmative action, mainly because women playing for board roles are as smart as -- if not smarter than -- most men vying for those roles, and also partly for the reason that everyone, especially male colleagues around them, think that they do not deserve their position andmaking it harder for the women to be effective and collegial in discharging their duties. Not to mention the charmless men harassing us as the man mentioned above did.
My pragmatic self, grounded in the realpolitik of gender, race, class, education etc, knows that incumbency is not broken by pretending that everyone plays on a level field.
My pragmatic self also knows that women's talent and education and experience are no vaccine against aggressively clueless bullying that men will mete out to them, while the women try to get to board seats and even when the women get to board seats legitimately.
My pragmatic self also says that if I get to serve on a board, I should and willwho have the right experience and who deserve a chance, but won't get it because they do not have the networks or the right establishment pedigree. This goes beyond gender to include race, sexuality (if I had a £ for every casual homo-and trans-phobic "joke" I hear in industry events!), religion and other markers of identity that are not deemed the norm.
To that extent, I will not ask or lobby for quotas but I will support endeavours such as the 30% Club (which ironically won't let me in since I am not an employee of a big corporation, but a mere board director) which are about industry leadership openly pledging their commitment to diversity and inclusion.
As chance would have it, one of my boards is 60% women and 20% non-white (overlapping). another 40% non-white and 40% women (these two overlap) and 40% Jewish (non-overlapping), and yet others I am in discussions with are hovering at around 15-20% minorities of various kinds.
Holding space till the glass ceilings are shattered is no mean feat. For now, we throw at the problem what it takes, regardless of our personal, conflicting feelings about it. Demeaning women regardless is a problem boorish men have to fix for themselves.
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