Gender equality on company boards

Until women are equitably represented in leadership in the private, economic sector, they will be marginalised in every other arena.”  Irene Lang, President of Catalyst

Imagine a country where the Ministry of Children, Equality and Gender is not only headed by a man but one who also availed of four months paid parental leave to look after his daughter. 

That’s Norway for you, and it is little wonder that they are Number Two in the world on the Global Gender Gap Rankings for 2010. 

They are also at the forefront with regard to the number of women on company boards with 40 percent female board representation. 

This didn’t happen by chance though; they had to enact legislation in 2003 which made it a requirement for companies to allocate 40 percent of their seats to women. 

In January this year France followed suit with a law giving companies six years to apportion at least 40 percent of their board room positions to women, to raise it from the current 15 percent. 

This applies to companies which are either listed, have more than 50 employees or revenues above 50 million euros. 

Closer to home South Africa’s boards have about 15 percent of seats occupied by women, despite the fact that the actual number of female board appointees has doubled from 574 to 1 127 between 2008 to 2010 according to a Star report.

As for Lesotho, I am carrying out a snap survey of the board compositions of some of the top private companies and because we don’t have a stock exchange (yet) where such information would be readily available, it’s a costly and time consuming exercise. 

So far the results don’t bode well for women’s advancement but I will give an update when I have the full picture. 

The drive for higher female representation on company boards is an extension of the gender equality issue in the corporate sector. 

Gender issues are not easily discussed in the corporate world unlike in the public and NGO sector where it’s part of the agenda. 

Elizabeth Broderick of the Australian Human Rights Commission made some interesting observations in a speech at the Women on Boards conference held in that country earlier this year, some of which we can consider for our local situation. 

Men as champions — It’s important to involve men in this conversation because they form the majority of CEOs and business leaders. 

They are the ones who will have to make the effort to cast the net wider to identify talented women who are not likely to be in their network.

What Broderick herself has done is interesting. 

She formed a “Male Champions of Change Group” and this group of “influential, committed and powerful” men signed a charter agreeing to do a number of things. 

Their mandate covers much more than board issues and it includes addressing such issues as affordable and accessible childcare and equal pay for men and women. 

One of the men who was CEO of IBM at the time brought together 10 CEOs of IT companies and they resolved to increase the number of women on their boards. 

His company appointed two additional women, one of whom is CEO of Microsoft. 

Quotas vs Targets — Australia is aiming for 40 percent representation by 2015 through corporates making their own targets rather than quotas which have some repercussions for non-compliance. 

Quotas can have mixed results as the companies may compromise on quality in an effort to avoid penalties. 

Furthermore women appointed under a quota system may not command as much respect as they would be seen as token appointees. 

Quotas are a last resort where voluntary targets fail to achieve desired results and where the talent pool is available.

I know all this might seem way too ambitious for developing countries to achieve since we have basic bread and butter issues to address. 

However we are looking at a situation in Lesotho where it’s not uncommon to find boards of major corporates with only one woman out of seven board members. 

Research has shown that companies with diverse leadership perform better. 

Let’s have the conversation to ensure that this issue of gender equality in the workplace receives our full attention. 

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