Facebook’s decision to appoint Sheryl Sandberg to its all-male board of directors should have been a routine announcement. But it wasn’t. For it came only after the social media giant was criticised by all and sundry for its “glaring blemish” of not having a woman on its board for so long.
Some even pointed out Sandberg’s frustration over the raw deal she had got so far by citing her speech – Why we have too few women leaders – at a 2010 conference. The speech generated an astonishing one million YouTube views.
The issue of women getting a raw deal in corporate boardrooms was, in fact, almost the flavour of the past fortnight. In its study on women in corporate Asia, McKinsey said greater gender diversity was not a strategic priority for 70 per cent of the CEOs. Around 50 per cent of graduates in Asia are women, but only a fraction of that number makes it to the middle management, let alone the top. On average, women account for six per cent of seats on corporate boards, and eight per cent on executive committees.
The situation is even worse in India, which features among the bottom three countries. Female representation on corporate boards is only five per cent. In executive committees, the number is just three per cent.
Some management consultants have suggested a way out of this by imposing a mandatory quota that would force business leaders to ensure that women are fairly represented in the boardroom — something that countries such as Norway, France, Sweden and Spain have done with some degree of success. In Norway, for example, women representation in corporate boardrooms has increased from around six per cent in 2003 to 44 per cent now. In Sweden, a quarter of boardroom posts are held by women — the figures were impressive enough to encourage German Chancellor Angela Merkel to say her country’s male-dominated boardrooms were a scandal and that companies had “one last chance” to address the issue before facing enforced quotas. The UK – which has 12 per cent women presence on corporate boards – has stopped short of setting mandatory quotas, but has said FTSE 100 companies should aim for a minimum of 25 per cent female board representation by 2015 since, at the current pace, it would take 70 years to balance the sexes.
Good luck to these countries, but will quota play any meaningful role? The answer evidently is no. Ask the CEO of any company, even those led by women, and the response is uniform: it would lay women board members open to criticism and risk, giving the impression that the women don’t deserve to be there and are only there to make up the numbers. A corporate boardroom has no place for such a patronising approach. That may be the reason reservation for women in boardrooms is dismissed by many as a “golden skirts quota”.
Taking the Facebook case, they say Zuckerman could have perhaps avoided the unnecessary controversy by giving Sandberg her due much earlier. While no one knows why he didn’t do so, it is absurd to interpret Sandberg’s appointment as a victory of woman power in corporate boardrooms. For amid all the men versus women headlines, what got buried in the copies was Sandberg’s other, more relevant, credentials — the chief operating officer’s enormous contribution to the transformation of Facebook into a very profitable business.
CEOs also rubbish the notion of a glass ceiling — a term that evokes the image of a cabal of top male executives scheming to preserve an old boy’s club. Corporate boards are too worried about the bottom line to let any such clubby mentality affect who they hire as board members, they say. That may be an exaggeration to drive home a point, but the real reason was provided by McKinsey.
According to the respondents surveyed, the biggest barrier for gender diversity within senior management is the double burden that women carry of looking after home and work, followed by the anytime, anywhere working model that expects senior managers to work round the clock. Other reasons like reluctance of women to promote themselves, lower ambition than men, absence of female role models and women’s inability to network like men also find a mention.
The HR head of a large firm adds his own bit: while it’s fashionable to attack the so-called sex discrimination in the Indian workplace, the fact is women themselves are partly responsible. He quotes a BBC report that said at the heart of the matter is the Cinderella complex: no matter how successful a woman is, subconsciously, she still expects that a prince is going to come along and rescue her. He says the business door is wide open but women, looking for different and more balanced lives, have not been interested in entering.
These may be extreme views, but the truth lies somewhere in between. Corporate India would certainly want to hire more women in boardrooms, but only those with a proven track record of having put in enough in their professional development. Those are the same criteria it would use to evaluate male candidates.