Stock Gender balance at workplaces
Removing biases and gaps on gender representation at boardrooms is a work in progress. But for many companies, it's still about paying lip service to the ideal rather than practice. Image Credit: Shutterstock

Gender equality is an item that finds a ‘No Admission’ stuck in its face at most corporate boardrooms. This, despite the fact that it is one of the Top 5 goals of the UN’s sustainability programme that most companies have agreed verbally as being critical.

And yet only 17 per cent of Nifty 500 companies’ board directors are women. Will UAE companies meet with the regulatory mandate?

The Middle East region has one of the lowest number of women directors on corporate boards globally. A 2018 data found that the proportion of women directors in listed GCC companies is just 2.5 per cent. The UAE has just 25 or so female board members (4 per cent). Egypt and Lebanon have the highest share of women on boards in the Middle East. A high proportion of women are stuck in companies’ committees.

Studies clearly say companies with more women leaders are 21 per cent more likely to outperform competitors and 27 per cent more likely to create better value. Yet, the pace at which the gender gap is closed in boardrooms is dismal.

Some gains, but slow

Interestingly, the needle is definitely bending when it comes to boardroom gender diversity in the US. The latest Spencer Stuart Board Index finds that, for the first time, all S&P 500 companies’ boards have at least one female member.

More women at the board table have not brought more women to the head of the table. There are only 30 or so independent female board chairs among the Fortune 500 and FTSE 100 combined list.

How did the women who chair boards beat the odds? What challenges do they face? What lessons can they offer to the new generation of women directors? Here’s some advice for those few women who are in boards today.

Make experience count

A first step is gaining experience by chairing a committee, particularly a substantive committee like for compensation or audit. Remember that leading in a board, whether a committee or the board itself is like leading from behind.

As a chair, you are there to facilitate the board and support the enterprise strategy. And, learning how to do that is very different from what you may have learnt as a CEO in another enterprise.

After you have chaired a committee for a couple of years and when a chair(wo)manship opportunity comes up, be direct on wanting the role – you need to explicitly ask for it. Go to the other directors and seek their inputs and support.

Give it ample time

It is not an easy task to be a board chair unless you are doing it full-time. If leading a board is a career choice, ensure that you have the time. Also, have some exposure on multiple boards during your career to understand different styles of leadership. As a thumb rule, try to have five- to six years of experience.

In the US, there is no fundamental difference between how the current generation of board members deals with a female and a male board chair.

However, in many GCC countries this is not so. An assertive lady chair of a leading company has been alternatively branded as abrasive and high-handed. Be aware of the situation culturally.

Spread it out

The role of the chair is to ensure good functionality - and you’re responsible as the chair. You just can’t do a five-hour board meeting. It is wiser to spread the meeting over three days with 90 minutes or so duration. You will find that it is harder now to read the room in virtual meetings.

Learn to ensure that everyone can participate, and as part of it, call on people in the meeting more often. You don’t have to be nervous before leading your first board meeting as the chair – just be your authentic self as always. There is no need to do a lot of groundwork before chairing your first meeting. You got the role because the other directors already have confidence in you…