One bird in a blue sky isn’t a herald of fine summer days. One data point doesn’t predict a trend. Similarly, when there’s only one woman on a board, council or committee, this results in a lack of diversity of views being brought to the table and signals the need for a diversity strategy across the organisation.
To improve reputation and performance, an organisation needs to have at least three women on the decision-making board so that diversity is not viewed as exotic, tokenistic or ‘we’ve now ticked that box’. That takes a commitment to diversity and inclusion, from the top down. Without the driving force of an active diversity strategy, it can be difficult for an organisation to shift its reputation from being a dinosaur, stuck in the past to one that is an inclusive, dynamic and modern workplace.
One may be worse than none
The Australian Institute of Company Directors has recently released their quarterly gender diversity report which monitors the levels of women on boards of ASX200 companies. Disappointingly, the rate of women appointed to these boards fallen (from 44% in 2016 to 30% in 2017). One-third of companies have only one woman on the board, 11 have none.
At a local government level in Victoria, the situation is similarly precarious with 17% (13) councils having only one woman elected, highlighting the precarious state of advancement in female representation at a political level. Who remembers the previous Prime Minister Tony Abbot’s one-woman only Ministry when he was elected in 2013? We all know of committees, sports clubs and community organisations with barely any women in decision-making roles.
Boards with no woman have rightly been criticised as dinosaurs by the likes of AICD Chair Elizabeth Proust. Having no or one-woman only on a board, council or committee is a signal that perhaps the workplace isn’t fair and as inclusive as it could be. Lone women are at risk of being isolated and marginalised and having their skills, experience ignored.
Where there is only one woman, it’s almost as bad as having no women as it can minimise the necessary scrutiny needed of diversity in board appointments. It allows organisations to ‘get by’ with a veneer of change, but the fundamental shift towards equality obviously hasn’t happened.
Why 3 is a critical number
Research by the Harvard Business Review found that having at least three women on boards provided a critical tipping point for performance and how women were perceived. At this level:
“women tend to be regarded by other board members not as “female directors” but simply as directors, and they don’t report being isolated or ignored.. They feel more like one of the team, with their opinions valued beyond being the lone voice or a token towards gender’.
The report went on to say that with a critical mass of women directors they noticed three specific contributions to boards that men were less likely to make:
- Women broadened discussions to better represent the concerns of a wide set of stakeholders, including employees, customers, and the community at large.
- Women could be more dogged than men in pursuing answers to difficult questions
- Women tended to bring a more collaborative approach to leadership, which improved communication among directors, the board and management.
When diversity becomes the ‘new normal’
When there is no woman on the board or just one woman on a Council or committee, it’s a red flag that a gender equality strategy is needed to address the invisible barriers to the fuller participation of women. With a strategy in place to deliver sustainable change, the benefits women bring to boards and workplaces can really start to flow.
The flow on effect of having more women on boards is that anyone other than an ‘old white male’ starts to become ‘normal’ too. This can result in the inclusion of talented people from different cultural backgrounds, ability, age and race, as part of a diverse board.
It’s when the lone bird turns into a flock, that we can be sure summer is on its way.
Ruth McGowan OAM works as a consultant, trainer and mentor on gender equality. She is passionate about working with people in workplaces and our communities to deliver real change in gender equality.