Tuesday, 30 October 2012


Perspective - Marijo Bos

As the President of EPWN, a business network spanning 15 counties, 20 cities, and nearly 3500 members, I’m often faced with the question, does EPWN support legislated quotas and if so, will we support campaigns promoting quota legislation.  

The Federation elects not to state an “official view” on quota legislation on behalf of all of our stakeholders since we have diverse points of view. In order to quantify our diversity on the topic, we asked our EPWN stakeholders to answer a quick EPWN platform poll on quotas. With 700 respondents, 19% of this total said they do not support quota legislation (see more on this in the Q3 newsletter). A dominant percentage of those responding NO were from EPWN London-based members while our Milan network respondents mostly said YES in support of quota legislation. EPWN in Milan also has the most active WOB visibility programs running for the 3rd consecutive year, Ready for Board Women. 

The fact that even 19% of the respondents of a women’s network, whose stated mission is to promote the progress of women, oppose legislation is an indication of the complexity of the issue. This reinforced our need to be present at the WOB Brussels Briefing panel in London, “Quotas: Does One Size Fit All Cultures?” I’ve reflected a lot more on this topic and inquired as I’ve attended WOB conferences and visited EPWN members from Lisbon to Munich, Dublin to Brussels and so I’d like to share my personal perspective on the topic.  Naturally, my perspective is influenced by the sub cultures in which I was raised, spent the majority of my professional career and where I’ve lived. 

Since the word “quota” triggers a negative reaction, with men in particular, let’s refer to this business objective as a target, a KPI (key performance indicator), a more commonly accepted term for success markers in business.  With this, a business objective becomes personal because it’s a measurement about “my” performance. What Gets Measured Gets Movement. This is a statement most leaders of people can agree on when it comes to business. If there are clear objectives, targets and immediate rewards or consequences around meeting goals, things get done.  And if things aren’t measured, a large majority of leaders or men in influential decision making roles will focus on the targets that are required by their boss’, the company President, their stated business plan.  And in so doing, leave the complex gender balance topic to the company D&I (Diversity & Inclusion) heads, women’s networks and other champions to pursue.  

Of course there are exceptions, some men do actively embracing gender balanced teams and boards. These enlightened men, or “menlightened” have often had a great female boss, a high performance mixed gender team experience, or they are blessed with exceptional business-minded wives, sisters, daughters etc. and so they personalize this as making business sense, being just or fair. However, this is not the norm.  

KPIs come with consequences if they are not met across business metrics, such as losing one’s bonus, the big promotion, and ultimately one’s job. In essence I’m a believer in targets and KPIs which accelerate movement in the right direction. I believe gender balance and gender intelligence must be a KPI set by the boss’, the Presidents of organizations, team leaders.  Gender Intelligence (getting the most out of men/women through versatile leadership) should become a stated Corporate Competency.  Only then, will decision makers personalize this objective and we won’t have to rely government regulations.   

My work, outside my volunteer role of EPWN, is delivering leadership development for global organizations and because of this I am regularly reminded of two things.  First of all, the large majority of executive program participants continue to be men, and secondly, leaders spend time developing skills, business practices and habits that are linked to their corporate culture’s stated expectations.  Change happens when behaviors are monitored and measured against past behaviors, and rewards given when the goal is reached. These rewards can be tangible or emotional rewards. 

It’s no secret that old habits are hard to break even when it’s obvious that societies and the world have evolved. The unconscious bias to recruit mirror image candidates who are easier to understand and manage, is one such habit that if not changed through monitors and consequences, deters the evolution of a stronger organization and stronger board. As with smoking laws, smokers weren't willing to shift their indoor smoking habits even with binders full of information on health hazards, environmental impact, injustices to nonsmokers etc. They only stopped smoking indoors when it became illegal.  Spain (my home much of the time) was a late adapter with resistance from all stakeholders, restaurants and individuals. Today it's a non-issue, a year after the law was implemented. It can be hard to see the forest through the trees, until you look back. 

There are immense arguments and well publicized studies which show that gender diversity improves the performance of a company, creates higher performing teams, increases employee engagement and improves overall communication dynamics and good governance. There’s also growing investor and consumer concern on the topic  of more female representation on boards connected to women’s orientation and competencies on risk management, collaboration and social responsibility. I believe there will be a first mover advantages for leaders and companies who wholeheartedly are transforming their cultures around gender and fully leveraging the intelligence and different experiences of men and women. Sodexo is just one example of a leading organization on the topic, recently bringing their board to 38% women with diverse experiences. 

Does one size fit all?  It's nearly impossible to get all of the women, let alone men, to agree on a single solution to the under representation of women at the top of the pipeline and on boards.   Corporate cultures and the “gender intelligence stage” of a country’s culture should be kept front and center in thinking through KPIs with consequences. The context and culture are key factors in determining how and when KPIs on gender balance should be legislated.  The UK benefits from the influence of Lord Davies, a respected, influential proponent and the strong voices of numerous programs, which Charlotte Sweeney, President EPWN London pointed out during the recent Brussels Briefing panel.  If all corporate cultures, and countries were fortunate enough to have a ‘Lord Davies’ plus influential local programs pushing WOB, maybe there wouldn’t be a need for this KPI to be legislated.  Sadly many countries are missing this. Where are the male champions with the stature and influence of Lord Davies in Portugal, Italy, Spain? 

What’s the impact of legislation and awareness? The progress in a few countries has been impressive. France passed a binding quota law a few years ago and the impact is clear with women filling 52.7% of all replenished board positions last year, bringing them to over 20% female representation on the largest company boards. Australia also progressed although this was not dependent on legislation but rather through total transparency on board selection, goal setting and good governance programs with strong female and male voices behind them.  Both countries have made great strides forward in entirely different contexts. 

Of note, Australia has enjoyed a solid economy over the past few years since "quotas" have become front and center in political conversation and so keeping WOB high on the corporate business agenda has succeeded.  In some countries, the cultural and contextual barriers or blinding distractions such as the economic crisis keep the WOB and executive pipeline numbers low.   We see this in Spain, Greece, Italy and Portugal.  It’s unfortunate that the economic challenges in the Eurozone have made the WOB topic less of a priority resulting in little progress, which is another argument for the binding KPI so it is top of the agenda and top of mind with leaders.   

Whether it's the US, Germany, Spain, Australia, Tunisia or Saudi Arabia, there is a single common thread: A patriarchal society keeps us from fast and efficient progress. Even with all of the indicators on improved corporate financial performance, stronger engagement across genders, increased responsiveness to the market and opportunity to access a much broader talent pool, change seems overwhelming when the change leaders are men. 

The VALUE locked up in and patriarchal boards and societies for this matter is huge. Let’s make this part of our past and see the forest through the trees as we look forward. Most importantly, let’s not transmit our practices to developing economies around the world who do look to the most "advanced" countries for trends, leadership guidelines and practices. Companies are often inadvertently blind to the impact of the smallest decisions related to equal participation of women and thus they become part of resisting change wholeheartedly. 

From Ikea executives choosing to airbrush out ALL of the women from their Saudi Arabian catalogues not long ago to most countries choosing to replace the majority of their freed up board seats this past year with men instead of women, when they already had 80% + men. These are huge missed opportunities to progress.   

In a modern society, where the business case for gender balance is so distinctly laid out and yet so little has been done to change the landscape, one thing is clear.  The fear of change and wanting to maintain control trumps the opportunity to advance our businesses, our economies. 

If CEOs and stakeholders, including current board members, employees, investors, consumers and suppliers, don’t hold corporations accountable for creating an environment that allows gender balanced leadership to thrive, then by all means, a temporary KPI must be legislated in order to move the needle on balanced boards.  

In our societies where both genders together “hold up the sky”, make great efforts to create a better, healthier and more sustainable social and economic future, I’ll close with an emotional and one of the strongest arguments for balanced boards, fairness or justice.  As Sheryl Sandberg said in a recent business video, “A World where men ran 50% of our homes and women ran 50% of our institutions would be a better world.” Gender balanced leadership in a professional setting and in a family environment is within reach if all CEOs and stakeholders commit to accelerate awareness, acceptance and concrete actions.  Culture is irrelevant here. 

If you would like to recommend male champions, advocates on gender balanced leadership at all levels, please connect with us at contact@epwn.net.  EPWN will provide a platform for these men’s voices to be heard.