Women on boards – the complexity science case

on Jan 23, 2014 in Blog

Recently I’ve found myself reflecting on gender diversity in business.

What kicked it off was a report by Cranfield School of Management entitled Women on Boards. The headline shouted: ‘Cranfield report reveals 25% target is in sight’. A few days ago, the FT announced: ‘Proportion of women on FTSE 100 boards tops 20%’. Shortly after, we heard that the London Stock Exchange (one of the last remaining FTSE 100 companies with only male directors) had just appointed two women as non-executive directors, that the Business Secretary, Vince Cable, had claimed that Britain is ‘on the home stretch’ towards improving boardroom diversity.

The gist of these stories is that progress is being made towards the target set by Lord Davies in 2011; that is to increase female board membership of FTSE 100 companies to 25% by 2015.

It’s good news right? Oh, but so uninspiring… I’ve never had particularly strong views on gender diversity. Perhaps because I always thought we were aiming for a rough 50:50 split of men and women at the top of organisations, weren’t we? WEREN’T WE?? Is the best we can imagine really just a minority of women on boards? (This is not a quota, remember, 25% of women on boards is a target – something to aim for). And are we happy with that? C’mon, it’s 2014. And I’m uninspired.

I sense a similar lack of enthusiasm from Lynda Gratton, who comments in her Future of Work blog: “Despite all our hopes to see more women at the top of leading organisations, the speed of change has been glacial”. And on Twitter today @duncanbhr and @MorgenWitzel seem similarly underwhelmed with progress towards gender parity in the business world.

Twitter Duncan

Twitter MorganW

But, if we’re making progress (there were only 12.5% of women on FTSE 100 boards in 2011, and now there’s 20%), then what’s the problem? For me, there are two problems with targets that accept a lack of gender parity on Boards.

The first problem relates to the societal case for diversity. Simply put, the societal problem is that ‘for society to thrive, women must thrive’. Yet, targets that accept a minority of women on boards (albeit a growing one) mean that we probably don’t have to challenge or change the wider social system that much. We don’t have to create the conditions for women to thrive at the top of business organisations, because, if we’re only looking for a minority, then we can probably find enough women to adapt to existing conditions. And nothing really changes….

Societal case: “Diversity matters for business because it matters for society and human flourishing”

That brings me to the second problem. What’s the point of having people who look different in our top teams, if they think the same? Or, even if they think differently, perhaps the environment in the business boardroom means that they (both men and women) feel constrained to say the same kinds of things or to act in the same kinds of ways as the majority.

For me, that’s the bigger danger of these targets, that they may engender a tacit acceptance of a minority of women on boards. An acceptance that we don’t, as a McKinsey report suggests, need to move mindsets, and therefore nothing really needs to change. That brings me to the complexity science case for diversity:

Complexity science case for diversity in the workplace

In complexity science, small differences between people enable organisational systems to adapt and evolve in new directions. Organisations that tightly align mindsets to rigidly exploit current capabilities may do well in the short-term. However, in a changing competitive landscape, they may only achieve a local peak of ‘fitness’ and then get stuck. As competitors adapt and explore the landscape, they may achieve higher peaks of fitness. And they may also deform the competitive landscape, so that local peaks may become less attractive. What this means is that, in the longer-term, organisations that adapt and evolve are more likely, on average, to thrive and survive. In short:

Complexity case: “Diversity matters for business because it matters to organisational survival and flourishing”

Yes, gender diversity can be a polarising topic, as INSEAD’s Herminia Ibarra suggests. Yet she also reports that a broad based commitment to diversity of thought and opinion brought everyone together behind the diversity and inclusion message at reinsurance giant Swiss Re. So maybe we can get behind the complexity science case for diversity in the workplace – to see beyond the usual suspects for board positions, to find those with new ways of thinking, and to create the culture and conditions for diverse Boards to thrive.

Call to action: If you’re in a position to recruit board members, then be much more ambitious. Don’t just look for skills and for ‘fit’. Go out of your way to search for people who can bring new ways of thinking and being to your Board. And when you do, I’ll bet you find that many of them also happen to be women…