Maybe there are plenty of women on boards (just not where anyone is looking)

Maybe there are plenty of women on ‘boards’ (just not where anyone is looking)

Ingrid Bremers
On the second Tuesday of each month, a bunch of board members pore over pages of financial statements, make capex and opex decisions, and discuss how to include Aboriginal culture as part of the business. Another board down the road is discussing a major procurement and the terms of the proposed sale agreement, code of conduct issues, and risk mitigation strategies for concerns.

The difference with these boards is that, in the former example, some of the opex is for craft supplies, nappies and excursions for kids at an early learning centre. The latter board, of a gymnastics governing body, is discussing the procurement of “Candy Pink” leotards and how to address chicken pox at dancing competitions.

Maybe there are plenty of women on boards, they are just not visible – which is a nice way of saying that they do not have much status or power (or recognition).

There is no shortage of media on the number of women on the boards of Australia’s biggest companies and even the small cap companies of ASX201-500, but what about even smaller entities?

It seems to me that many women are essentially just playing in the “minor leagues” of board membership. In my community, I see plenty of women serving on the boards of schools, daycares, community organisations and the like, they just haven’t made it to the “big leagues” yet. (Footnote: Yes, I recognise that I am using sports analogies to describe this situation. I am certainly not trying to reinforce masculine discourses and social practice around board memberships, nor to downplay the importance of those community and smaller boards – If you can think of a better metaphor, please let me know!)

This gave rise to two questions for me:

  1. Can we tap into these talented women to move the dial in the “big leagues”?

I find it genuinely promising to see so many women serving in these roles as directors – I would suggest that they must have some interest in being in a leadership role, and some experience and capability (given that they are currently doing it!).

And we, as a society and as corporate citizens, should not be underestimating the capabilities.  The issues these board members face are just as real as their contemporaries in larger organisations, albeit at a smaller scale and in a different industry or context.

While I recognise that the regulatory burden can be different depending on the size and type of the organisation, it is worth remembering that:

(a) a lot of the regulatory and governance requirements and skills are substantially the same. To put in another way, there is “no longer any place for a board of well-meaning amateurs”, as was described in this 2012 AICD piece on school boards

(b) many boards of smaller entities are functioning with a paucity of resources and support, and

(c) these boards may also be operating in a context where the potential risks to individuals and reputational damage is truly significant (for instance, in the examples above, the risks associated with providing services to young children or other vulnerable people).

So let’s start appreciating and rewarding the capabilities and experiences of board members in the “minor leagues”, both in applicants and – for a lot of us – in ourselves.

  1. What is the gender diversity on these “minor leagues” boards?

If there is evidence that diversity and inclusion on boards has positive impacts on performance, my second question is this: are there enough men involved in the governance at the level of the local School, dance federation or not-for-profit? Just as importantly, do they feel welcomed and included by the board?

If the performance benefits of gender diversity and inclusion goes both ways, maybe these “minor leagues” boards would benefit from having great gender diversity too.

I don’t know the answers to these questions, but it gives me some hope.

So next time you bump into that high-performing woman on a board, tap her the shoulder and encourage her to consider going for one of those “big league” boards (this book by Tara Mohr may help). And while you are tapping people on the shoulder, why not prompt that man — whether he’s a father, grandfather or something else — to get on the board of a community level organisation.


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