Are the UK's corporate leaders sexist?

Some FTSE 350 bosses give 'appalling excuses' for not hiring women to the board.

by Adam Gale
Last Updated: 31 May 2018

‘Most women don’t want the hassle or pressure of sitting on the board.’

‘I don’t think women fit comfortably into the board environment.’

‘All the good women have already been snapped up.’

You can almost hear the groans of despair from corporate comms teams across the country, behind the outraged chorus of people with a passing interest in social justice. The above were excuses given by FTSE 350 chief executives and chairman to explain why they haven’t hired more women to their boards of directors, according to an article published by the government today.

It claims that they were overheard by members of the team behind the Hampton-Alexander Review, the government-backed, business-led body that’s attempting to increase the proportion of women on boards to one third by 2020.

How much do these comments reveal about the attitudes towards women and equality at Britain’s top tables? Not all that much, and certainly less than the newspaper headlines suggest.

Yes, the excuses above betray a prejudice about half the workforce that is frankly appalling, as Business Minister Andrew Griffiths said in the article. Though we don’t know the exact context in which they were spoken, it’s hard to imagine one that would justify them.

However, the existence of some sexist dinosaurs shouldn’t be taken to mean that all or a majority of senior men are necessarily sexist: there are presumably 700 chief executives and chairmen in the FTSE 350, most of whom are men; it takes fewer than a dozen to create a short list of horrible comments.

Indeed, not all the comments on the list are necessarily sexist.

 ‘There aren’t that many women with the right credentials and depth of experience to sit on the board - the issues covered are extremely complex.’

‘We need to build the pipeline from the bottom - there just aren’t enough senior women in this sector.’

‘I can’t just appoint a woman because I want to.’

Though the former is particularly badly worded*, all three are variants on the same theme: being on the board requires considerable experience at a senior level; women have, for various reasons, not been equally represented thus far at that senior level; therefore there currently aren’t as many women with the necessary experience to sit on the board as there are men.

That statement is undeniably true, even though it shouldn’t be and certainly needn’t continue to be. If leaders shrug their shoulders and say ‘that's just how it is’, then yes this too is sexism, by indifference. But if they make it a priority to identify and clear the barriers to women’s progression through the pipeline, then having this view is not sexist at all.

The fact is, we just don’t know how prevalent sexism or unconscious bias is at this level. Most CEOs and chairmen are probably well-meaning and aware of the long-term business case for diversity and inclusion, but in any case they’re just too well media-trained to air their unfiltered thoughts in public (note that comments on the government’s list were all anonymous). Even the ones who do have unsavoury views are unlikely to reveal them unless in private or at a particularly blokey, boozy black tie dinner.

This is not a simple issue

Of course, this government story was never really designed to shed any light on Britain’s business leaders. It was designed to pressure companies to change, and possibly to shift the blame for slow progress onto the shoulders of the corporate, rather than the political elite.   

This is dangerous, not because businesses couldn’t do much better or because they shouldn’t be held to account, but because it oversimplifies a complex issue. The pace of progress depends on social factors as well just the fiat of chairmen and chief executives - you can do all you like to hire more women in the mining sector, for example, but it won't get you very far unless more women want to apply.

An overly hostile environment that doesn’t allow for complexity just encourages business leaders to hide behind a wall of spin, and shift any blame that does get through onto these social factors, rather than actually engaging with them. As with most difficult problems, an honest and constructive debate is sorely needed.

*An example of where context matters. This line is being interpreted to mean that women aren’t capable of understanding complex issues, but it could equally mean that anyone - man or woman - without the necessary depth of experience will struggle with this complexity.

Image credit: David Stuart Productions/Shutterstock

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