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Women on the board - A lonely place?

How can we increase female representation on Boards?  This question is attracting a lot of global attention through policy, research and debate.  This is a great move and in the UK, the rest of Europe and the US there are big initiatives to make it easier to access the supply of talented women who are ready to take on executive or non executive board positions.  But what is life like for the women who make it to the top?   

Over the past week I’ve spoken with two senior women who have been at or near the top of major UK business.  It’s a sample of 2, so not exactly representative, but there were such striking similarities in their stories that it seems worth sharing a couple of the themes...

Firstly, both feel that they are able to contribute a very different perspective to their male colleagues.  The differences seem to match both stereotypes and the research data – they are more aware of the values of the organisation, of the experience for employees and they focus more on long term sustainability, rather than just short term gain.
Secondly, they can find it a lonely place.  Both feel respected and listened to, yet often ‘out on their own’.  They therefore have to carefully select the battles to fight and to keep their resilience and energy they need to make sure they have the right support in place.

For me, these experiences highlight the wisdom of the research that suggests that at least 3 female Board Directors are needed to have the full impact (McKinsey, 2007), or that at least 30% should be female (e.g. the 30% club).  We have a way to go before we get to 30%.  In the meantime, I think we need to be smarter at our networking... providing safe mentoring and coaching to support the lone female voices.  We also need to work with the boards as a group and help them to see more effective ways to harness and support diversity when it’s sitting across the table.  

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