Ask the experts: Women in the boardroom

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The FT has published for the second year running its ranking of the top 25 businesswomen in Europe. Since last year a handful of initiatives to redress the gender imbalance in senior management have been gaining ground across Europe, but the women in this ranking have largely had to fight their way to positions of power and remain the exception.

Stine Bosse (left), one of our top 25 and CEO of Danish insurance group TrygVesta, together with Peninah Thomson (right), co-author of ‘A Woman’s Place is in the Boardroom’, answer your questions below on the route to the top for businesswomen.

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Women in business are often appreciated for their softer skills: management not leadership, good lateral thinking, less structured approach, seeing the overall picture and focusing on the human issues of business for both customers and employees. With this in mind do you think that women have different coaching needs to men when trying to reach board levels? Also, has there been an increase in the number of women asking for coaching/mentoring in the last few years? What are the most common issues raised by women wanting to reach board level?
Diana Soltmann, Chief Executive, Flagship Group Limited

Peninah Thomson: Yes, I do think the development needs of women approaching, or just arrived at, their first board appointment may differ from the development needs of their male peers.

The reason I believe this to be true goes back to the question of organisational culture. It’s important to remember that because women are relatively new entrants to the very top jobs in companies (and private sector bodies) the organisational cultures have largely been shaped by men. This is nobody’s fault - it’s just a fact. Because men have occupied the most senior positions in organisations, the cultures tend to reflect male ways of doing things. Male ways of thinking about power and authority; male ways of taking decisions; male ways of discourse.

The culture at the “top of the office” or in the boardroom is like a sea: a lone woman becoming a new board member is entering that sea for the first time and trying to learn to swim effectively in it. Men don’t even know that it is a sea - it just “is”. Learning to swim when there’s no-one swimming quite like you is difficult, especially when there are no female role models to observe.

Everyone around can seem to be happily ploughing through the water doing backstroke when you’ve spent your professional life hitherto doing the crawl! Many able and ambitious women (and, of course, some men) feel slightly disorientated when they get close to the top. The personal strategies and tactics that worked well previously seem less effective.

Relationships in the ratified atmosphere of the boardroom that were easy and warm before become more difficult and complex. The unspoken language of status and politics that most men seem to understand intuitively is harder for women to grasp. They begin to feel they are walking through minefields where one false step might be disastrous - and of course, because there are so few women at the very top, any perceived failure is very public.

Coaching women who are approaching board-level must address all these issues. The question of technical competence is not an issue here: any woman being considered by an authoritative company for a board position is competent. In several FTSE 100 organisations, the people in charge of top executive development have asked us to work with their senior women approaching the board on these subtle and nuanced cultural and behavioural factors as well.

They want to give their senior women employees with appropriate levels of transitional support, and we help with that. The win:win situation in our big companies would, of course, be to address the cultural issues so that both men and women executives can fulfil their leadership potential, as quickly as possible after their appointment.


Does success for women in business depend on men doing an equal share of the domestic and childcare work, in short, a second feminist revolution?
Roberta Feldman Brzezinski, Managing director, EMP Global

Peninah Thomson: Revolutions seem always, conventionally, to result in such a wasteful loss of life! I think on balance, I’m in favour of evolution - but possibly a rather more rapid evolution than we have witnessed hitherto.

The five of us on “Women Directors on Boards” formed the Consortium - a Consortium for Action and Change - because of a slight sense of exasperation that change seemed to be glacially slow. We genuinely believe that the formulation of strategy, the taking of decisions and the solving of problems would be greatly enhanced if people with different points of view and differing backgrounds and life experience were able to make their contribution.

Jacey, Tom and I wrote the book because we believe that the large, increasingly global institutions that shape our world and our lives would be a more potent force for good, a more powerful engine of economic growth and a more prolific creator of value for shareholders if more women were more directly involved in their guidance and governance. Evolution toward that goal it is, but a faster-paced evolution than there has been hitherto!


I read in the FT that Norway has legislation forcing the biggest companies to make 40 per cent of their directors women. Do you think this approach is the right one to redress the historical imbalance on boards?
Rebecca Vick, Hertfordshire

Peninah Thomson: Yes, the trend in Scandinavia is toward legislation to bring about change. Norway has legislation in place; the Swedish government too is considering legislation. In western European countries, governments are tending to encourage and exhort rather than legislate. In the Netherlands there is a programme called “Women in the Picture”, which (among other things) provides companies with a database of credible female candidates for director-level positions. The FTSE 100 Cross-Company Mentoring Programme, a UK initiative, is working to increase the low numbers of women on FTSE 100 boards (4 per cent of executive directors are women, and 13 per cent of non-executive directors): in this, some 30 FTSE-100 chairmen or chief executives are mentoring women at the level just below the Board from another FTSE 100 company.

We at Praesta are proud to sponsor this programme, and the chairmen and chief executives of some of the UK’s most authoritative companies are proud to be part of it. The intention is to assist the women being mentored to become credible board candidates; the scheme is just one year old and is already starting to deliver results. My understanding is that ministers in the UK government, who are very supportive of the scheme, have no plans to legislate in this area: corporate UK has taken up the challenge and is doing something about the problem itself.

Stine Bosse: No, I do not think it´s the right way. But I do think that the politicians can put pressure on the business community by making rules that could have a positive impact on the thinking and finally the initiatives taken by business.


What are the critical professional qualifications and personnel characteristics that have underpinned your success in making it to the boardroom?
Eithne M Lee, London

Stine Bosse: It´s always hard to talk about your own merits. I have educated myself, apart from the university degree, by “doing” and by finding inspiration from others. I do not worry about learning from others, and also admit that I learn. I still do. I have taken a lot of inspiration from other sectors, where it´s easier to share knowledge between managers.

As a person I am very engaged in what I do. I have always been curious, and I like to explore new ideas and ways to go forward. I have overcome being shy and I have developed a direct form. I am very focused on giving credit to the people that really make the difference on the day to day basis. Our employees are our great resources. As managers top or middle we should never forget that.

Peninah Thomson: I’m tempted to suggest that you ask my colleagues! Seriously, though - having benefited from parents who provided me and my brother with love, a stable home base, took my questions seriously and encouraged me to fulfil whatever potential I had. That’s number one. Then, I had great teachers: who took an interest in me and pushed me. I’ve benefited from a “good education” in formal terms: Grammar School, Oxford Brookes University, University of Oxford (Lady Margaret Hall), and also things like the WEA, and the Department for External Studies at Oxford. Ashridge Management College. Metanoia Institute.

I believe strongly in lifelong education. I joined a great firm (Coopers & Lybrand, now PWC) that invested heavily in training and development. My current firm, Praesta Partners, invests strongly in continuing professional development. Education and training are very important. In terms of personal characteristics: um! Well - high energy levels, intellectual curiosity, resilience, confidence, an intense interest in people and organisations, a sense of humour and a sense of proportion!


No matter how one looks at this challenge there remains the pivotal issue of parenting: whether to have children, when to have them and how many to have. At the moment establishment in a senior position on a recognisable career path to the top seems to be necessary before a woman has her first child and this seems to be the accepted way. What age should women be considered for serious careers - can it be left until they are in their 30s when their nurturing of young children could be behind them? I am sure that many women are capable of establishing themselves, from scratch, in serious careers in their early 30s!
Rosemarie Hutchinson

Peninah Thomson: To start with your last sentence - yes, I am sure you’re right! But (with certain notable exceptions) the current situation in business is largely as you describe it - that women tend to reach a senior position before taking time out to have a family, then return. There is, too, the question of whether women who do take time out to have a family, ever really regain parity in salary terms with their male peers. There is some excellent research done by Sylvia Anne Hewlett, in the US, that shows that women who take time out to have a child, even if the time they are absent from the workplace is only one year, in fact lose three years’ worth of salary - and the research suggests that they never succeed in making it up.

There is some work to be done in thinking creatively about how to manage women’s careers in large corporates - how to manage the talent pipeline, if you will. On the positive side, there are some excellent examples of companies that are thinking creatively about how to progress the careers of women (and men) in their 40s and 50s. This is, I think, work-in-progress and more, certainly, needs to be done.

Stine Bosse: First I think many women leave having children too long. And then do not forget the father. Let him take part, he is often as good at it as the mum. Share the daily jobs with him, make sure you do not end up with two full time workplaces. Then start your career with pleasure and enjoy it! A happy person is also a good mum, dad and spouse.


At ISR we have just done a piece of research that shows twenty five per cent of female senior managers in the UK say they are not adequately involved in decision making. Significant numbers also have don’t have confidence in decisions made by the senior management team and don’t think it is safe to speak up in their organisation. We were disappointed by the results of the research but I would be interested to know your views on these results and if you have any advice for companies in the UK on how to tackle this problem?
Yves Duhaldeborde, Regional Director, ISR Europe

Stine Bosse: If a female senior manager is not properly involved in relevant decisions she should not take any of the responsibility. It´s hard stuff but I do think that people in these positions should speak up for themselves. The top management can facilitate this by using different management tools - also for decision taking. Perhaps it should also be viewed to track the decision patterns in these organisations. Many things can be learnt from that.

Peninah Thomson: The findings from your research are disappointing, especially the feedback that 25 per cent of female managers surveyed don’t think it is safe to speak up in their organisation. In my experience, blue-chip corporate organisations in the UK - the FTSE 100 companies - are working hard to address the type of cultural issues that result in people being afraid to speak.

There are some difficult questions to be addressed, though: what is it, exactly, about the culture of an organisation that results in a climate in which its people feel it is not safe to speak? How would an organisation discover that this was the case and - if it found that it was - what could it do to change things?

First, research helps to identify where the problems are so organisations need to carry out research and climate surveys. Second, having identified what the issues are, and where they are concentrated, the next task is to be creative in designing interventions that will address them.

My experience - in public sector organisations (big government departments in the UK and abroad) and in private sector organisations like banks and retail and manufacturing companies - is that those “interventions” work best when the people they are intended to affect play some part in their design. That doesn’t mean some vast change management programme is necessary. It does, however, mean that a “vertical slice” of people at various levels within the company need to be involved both in identifying the cultural problems and suggesting solutions.

Third - and finally - it is absolutely essential that any programme of change, small or large, benefits from committed sponsorship from the man or woman at the top of the organisation. This is a duty of leadership: it is a sine qua non for successful cultural change.


Are British women too polite? Of the UK based women listed, at least a third grew up and were educated in the USA, and if one looks at another list - a very short one - the same applies to female chairmen and chief executives of FTSE100 companies, of whom 50% are non-British. Does this reflect the fact that British women in business are suffering because of a cultural refinement that makes them reticent in pushing their talents? Is a direct or aggressive approach the only way forward? Or should recruiters be doing more to recognise women with ability and ensure that they are given the opportunity to leverage those skills without diminishing the very diversity which adds value to their contribution?
Claire Ighodaro, Independent Director and past President of the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants

Peninah Thomson: This is a really good point. It’s absolutely true that a significant number of women holding top executive positions in the UK are from North America - the US or Canada.

I and my two co-authors spent quite a lot of time thinking about this: why it might be and what it might or might not tell us about British women. Do I think British women in business are suffering because of a cultural refinement that makes them reticent in pushing their talent? I do think there is something in this hypothesis. From my work as a senior executive coach I know that the majority of women - even at very senior levels - can be self-deprecating. In the book, we describe it as the “little me” syndrome: it’s almost as if a woman doesn’t quite believe her job (even though it may be at the highest level) can really be a serious, “big” job - simply because it is she who is doing it.

This is a real issue! Part of the work, I think, is to assist able women (of whatever nationality) to own their success and achievements and be able to speak calmly and confidently about them in public. This doesn’t mean being arrogant or narcissistic; just having the poise to “own” their achievements. Long answer to your question, but you’ve hit upon a real issue!

Stine Bosse: I think it´s good to be polite. But if you want influence at the top, it´s part of the game to be polite and direct at the same time. Both men and women have these sides in them, and I see no reason why we should change recruiting focus. I do favour a mix of sexes in top management, and I do think we contribute also with our diversity in the board room and that is what makes the difference for the business.


I read an article recently about how young girls’ new ambition is to be famous and that they look up to people like Jordan as role models. As a young, educated woman working in the corporate sector, I see this as a worrying trend. Do you feel that as successful businesswomen you (and others) have a responsibility to inspire young women to strive towards success in the boardroom. If yes, how would you go about doing this?
Muloongo Muchelemba
Consultant - Financial Modelling, Shell Centre, London

Peninah Thomson: Individuals have to choose their own role models, I think what’s important is that there should be a sufficiently large choice. For example, if all surgeons were redheads then one might conclude that to be a surgeon, red hair is a prerequisite!

The analogy works for women directors on boards. if young women in large corporates look at the boardroom and see only men there, it is harder for them to imagine taking their place at the boardroom table. Women directors, during the research for “A Woman’s Place is in the Boardroom”, told us that being the lone woman on a board was hard, inasmuch that they could not look sideways and see a woman colleague functioning at the same level. So, role models are important; there will always be some young women who will want to be like Jordan (and that’s their prerogative); for young women who want to participate at senior levels in companies however, it’s very important that they can “look up” and see capable, competent senior women functioning well at executive levels. And yes, I do think that those of us who happen to be in that position should be mindful that we are role models. Whether we can be inspirational is for others to decide!

Stine Bosse: I think it’s important to be aware of the role model issue. There are not that many women who get to the top jobs. What I myself have found inspiring is to see other women being skilled, working hard and showing good results. I hope that I can be of some inspiration for others in this way.


Are recent high-profile court cases involving high-fliers, notably in the City and financial services sector, an indication of increasing confidence among women to fight back when they feel they have been discriminated against on pay, promotion, and maternity rights? How should women tackle sexism in the workplace - are tribunals and litigation the answer?
Liisa Rohumaa, Deputy editor, FT.com

Peninah Thomson: I do think that the recent court cases involving high-fliers, in the City and elsewhere, challenging conditions or behaviours they believe to be unjust, are evidence of an increasing confidence among women in “speaking out”.

The sub-title of our first book was “Women Leaders’ Voices” (the whole title is “The Changing Culture of Leadership: Women Leaders’ Voices”). Our choice of sub-title was precisely to acknowledge that there were, in 1999 when the book came out, relatively few opportunities for very senior women to make known their views and perceptions of what was going on in the workplace.

Things are changing now: there is more of a critical mass of women in top executive roles and it’s possible that there is a greater willingness to “stand up and be counted” in confronting a perceived injustice. An interesting book to read in this area is “Tales from the Boom-Boom Room” - published a couple of years ago. I can’t remember the author’s name, but it’s salutary reading for anyone who might be tempted to believe that all the problems have gone away.

Stine Bosse: I hope all women stand up on these issues - it’s about time. In 2005 we shouldn’t see court cases regarding these issues. Oppressing people via sexism is not in any way acceptable. No one should accept that. How to overcome this is more difficult to answer. Litigation could be part of a solution but I would like to see a stronger attitude taken by managers as such.


Do you know of any correlation between a country’s level of development/economic performance and the number of women on private sector boards in that country? Do you know of any studies that have specifically examined this?
Shaheen, Cyberswirl Solutions

Stine Bosse: No, I do not know if there is a correlation. I´m sure there must be studies, and I would also intuitively think there is a correlation. We all know that it starts with skills and if a given country struggles with large economic problems and underdevelopment, then we know for sure that women often are “at the bottom” so to speak.

Peninah Thomson: I don’t know of any studies that have tried to establish a correlation between a country’s economic performance and the number of women on private sector boards in that country. You might like however to have a look at a study produced annually by Professor Sue Vinnicombe and Dr Val Singh, at Cranfield University - the “Female FTSE Index”. This is an analysis produced annually, and in the 2004 edition the authors examined Board diversity and financial performance. This is not an easy analysis to undertake - there are so many variables that it is not possible to “prove” cause and effect - but the Report makes some interesting observations. It’s available from Cranfield.


Have you found that your advancement to board level has been made more difficult by female colleagues who are uncomfortable with seeing women in positions of authority?
Isabel Tonge, London

Peninah Thomson: Not personally. When I was a junior consultant in one of the ‘Big Four’ accountancy/management consultancy firms, I worked on a 6-month assignment in a government department. One of the executive team there was a women - at that time it was pretty unusual. I watched how she operated on the executive team, how she influenced, how she handled conflict, how she used humour and how she used her intellect without being perceived as “scary”. I learned a lot from her, and she was kind enough to act as an informal mentor.

That’s just one example; throughout my working life I’ve benefited from the advice and support of men and women willing to take an interest and guide, counsel and warn. I have not come across women who are uncomfortable with other women in positions of authority; they may not have wanted those positions themselves, but they were not obstructive toward others who did.

Stine Bosse: No, I have never encountered this problem. I know some people view this as a barrier, but I have not met it. Perhaps I just haven´t seen it!


To read the full FT ranking, plus interactive profiles of Europe’s top 25 businesswomen, go to www.ft.com/women.

Stine Bosse is chief executive of TrygVesta, the second biggest insurer in the Nordic region with 3,700 employees, two million customers and €2.65bn in premium income. Her biggest professional challenge has been preparing the company for the sale of 40 per cent of its shareholding to the public, which was completed on Friday. Ms Bosse trained as a lawyer and has four children.

Peninah Thomson is a Partner at Praesta Partners, the UK’s leading consultancy specialising in executive coaching. For the past eight years she has worked exclusively as a board level executive coach.

Ms Thomson is co-author of ‘A Woman’s Place is in the Boardroom’, which presents break-through research into the real reasons for the small numbers of women executive and non-executive directors in the UK.

She is also a co-founder of the Praesta sponsored FTSE 100 Cross-Company Mentoring Programme, launched in November 2003 and initiated by Women Directors on Boards. The programme involves 29 Chairmen FTSE 100 Chairmen and Chief Executives who mentor senior women to assist their development as credible candidates for Board roles.

’A Woman’s Place is in the Boardroom’ was published in hardback by Palgrave Macmillan in September 2005 priced at £25.00. ISBN: 1-4039-9683-0. It is available in most major bookshops including: Waterstones, Blackwells and Books Etc. Alternatively, websites www.amazon.co.uk or www.palgrave.com

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