Experimental feature

Listen to this article

Experimental feature

Almost every day brings stories about redressing gender balance on corporate boards in the aim of “diversity”. And more than a year after Lord Davies’ report on the subject, there is evidence of progress. But much remains to be done.

Recent “soft ultimatums” by Viviane Reding, the European commissioner for justice, have upped the ante. “I don’t like quotas, but I like what they do,” she said, putting in motion a public consultation to explore what will get more women into boardrooms.

Many of those providing counsel (including Ms Reding) advocate that to be “board-ready”, female candidates should have or get an MBA. I don’t recall ever seeing an MBA as a must-have for male board members. Before it becomes a prerequisite for women, we should take another look at the assumptions driving it.

In Mrs Moneypenny’s Careers Advice for Ambitious Women, Heather McGregor advocates an MBA, but also admits she rarely uses what she learnt, a comment I have heard many times in my professional life. In addition to building confidence, the real benefit she cites is “gaining a network of peers, faculty and alumni”.

I heartily agree. A strong personal network is invaluable to help advance one’s career and gain perspective and valuable feedback. However the evidence is less clear that an MBA intrinsically provides this type of network, especially with respect to securing board positions.

As Shawn O’Connor, chief executive of Stratus Prep and Careers, recently commented in this column: “Even the best business schools mistakenly assume that their students are competent networkers,” adding that students increasingly fail to grasp that skill.

Seth Godin, writer and entrepreneur, goes further, arguing that unless you want to be a consultant, where an MBA is a “screen test” for admission, the degree is no longer an obvious choice and often not worth the personal investment. He advocates reading 30 suggested books as a better use of time and money, because MBAs are not vocational programmes providing the deep experiential wisdom that business leaders need.

Remembering that the aim is diversity, Lord Davies said: “This isn’t just about equality, it’s about performance. And the simple fact is that the more diverse your team, the better it performs.”

But gender balance is but one piece of the diversity mix. Beth Brooke, global vice-chairman of Ernst & Young, argues that with “gender, ethnicity, generational and cultural diversity, you get better solutions”. In fact, an MBA requirement for women may undermine diversity because the degree encourages everyone to think alike. A glance at business school curriculums around the world shows remarkable conformity.

One diversity model that is perhaps illuminating is the UK Competition Appeal Tribunal, which hears cases on infringements of competition law. Its prevailing philosophy is that a diverse, multidisciplinary membership is required to understand the evidence placed before it.

While legal expertise is fundamental, each tribunal has members with experience in related fields led by a seasoned lawyer chairman. Where the law has to be applied in matters of economics, business practice, accounting or finance, then it has generally been the case that a diverse, multidisciplinary, experienced panel is advantageous in engaging with the issues. These skills are based not on academic qualifications but on practical knowledge and real-world experience.

I am a huge believer in life-long learning. I have hired many MBAs and sent individuals on great advanced academic courses. There are many instances where an MBA is the right next step and a life and career-changing experience, for men or women. But it does not make anyone magically board-ready, nor does it achieve diversity.

Let’s not fool ourselves and allow an unhelpful “MBA required for women” myth to take hold.

Margot Daly is a panel member of the Competition Appeal Tribunal, a non-executive director and a former FTSE chief executive.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019. All rights reserved.

Follow the topics in this article