Women, boards and confidence

Any company that doesn’t have a woman on their board is surely failing the wider business

By Michelle Perry | Published 12:59, 27 February 12

WomenMuch has been said about the benefits of greater diversity in British boardrooms, but I’ve heard few concrete examples as to how diversity helps companies on an operational level.

David Tyler, chairman of Sainsbury’s, however put an end to my inquiry when he provided a clear example of those much touted but little explained benefits.

“Women tend to have a sense about business from a very experienced background which is different as a consumer from those of men. And that’s extremely important to have around your board especially if you’re a consumer-facing business,” Tyler, a former CFO of the UK’s leading companies, told me.

Traditionally women have held the household purse strings despite men being the main breadwinners and it is women who have developed top-notch budgeting skills to ensure the wage not only covered all of their needs but lasted for the duration until the next pay packet arrived.

Given the current climate of austerity – and despite a newfound surge of interest in shopping among men – women are undoubtedly applying those traditional budgeting skills and adjusting their shopping habits to tackle inflation, wage cuts or worse job cuts.

So it’s surprising that many boards – especially in retail companies – still haven’t realised that the majority of shoppers, and therefore their customers, are women. Any business, but particularly those in retail, which still doesn’t have a woman on their board is surely doing a disservice not only to the wider business but to its consumers.

Sainsbury’s is one of the retailers that learnt this lesson a while ago. Two of Sainsbury’s six non-executive directors are women who have been board members long before Lord Davies launched his challenge in February 2011 to FTSE companies to beef up the number of women sitting in boardrooms or face the threat of quotas. Anna Ford, former BBC newsreader, joined Sainsbury’s board in May 2006 and Mary Harris, a McKinsey partner, has sat on the board since August 2007.

Few in business want quotas and opposition is particularly fervent from businesswomen. Standard Life CFO Jackie Hunt, one of only six female finance chiefs at a FTSE100, told me last week that she was dead against quotas.

What she’d rather see is more women highlighting their achievements instead of focusing on their failings. It’s a point that a growing body of research by behaviourists and psychologists finds – that women suffer more than men from a lack of confidence. Being aware of this is the first step, says Hunt, the next steps are up to women to fix themselves.

“I’m very conscious of focusing on what I can do and not what I can’t do,” she tells me.

“Whatever drives that behaviour … is in some ways is irrelevant, you can’t fix it overnight and I’m not even sure it needs to be fix. Overconfidence is as bad a trait. But when we verbalise it and put ourselves down I think that is damaging.

“So I would say if you feel a lack of confidence as an individual don’t take it into the interview with you. Don’t focus on the things you can’t do, verbalise the positives,” Hunt says.

From a woman who has ‘made it’, it’s sound advice. The push for more women on boards can only achieve so much, the rest is up to women themselves to believe, and then prove they are capable.

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