February 28, 2014 Balancing the board
There is nothing new about the ongoing debate on the role of women in public life, and it is an area on which we have previously commented, but every now and then a story emerges which give fresh impetus to the discussion. Such was the case recently when the BBC’s director of television, Danny Cohen, announced that “we’re not going to have any more panel shows with no women on them”.
Commenting on the announcement, comedian Dara O Briain said “A certain number of women want to go into comedy, and they should be cherished and nurtured, but you’re not going to shift the fact that loads more men want to do it” adding “legislating for a token woman isn’t much help.” Clarifying his remarks further, Mr O Briain said that he had argued for more women to appear on comedy panel shows but feared that following the corporation’s announcement female comedians would in future be seen as “token women” rather than as performers who were on the panel by right.
This latest controversy perfectly illustrates one of the key challenges for those seeking to create a balanced board; appointing on merit or by quota. In general, with well qualified candidates presenting from all walks of life, it should be possible to appoint on merit and still create a balanced board but the imposition of quotas and targets means that successful candidates run the risk of being seen as “token” appointments. This in turn can lead to internal unrest with post holders not receiving the respect which they deserve.
Current EU proposals on board diversity contain the stricture that “The law places the emphasis firmly on qualification. Nobody will get a job on the board just because they are a woman.” However the EU proposal also requires those European companies with less than 40% women among their non-executive board members to “introduce a new selection procedure for board members which gives priority to qualified female candidates.” Within the UK, in January 2014 the Business Secretary, Vince Cable, wrote to the chairmen of the top 350 listed companies asking them each to appoint an extra female director in 2014.
That there is a need to operate without gender or ethnic discrimination is not in dispute. But an outright focus on gender balance may have unforeseen consequences, both by making boards less diverse in other ways and with the appearance of tokenism leading to internal strife. To successfully create a balanced board which works seamlessly for the benefit of the organisation will require robust and open selection procedures allied to a culture which praises and publicises merit for its own sake.