Avoid groupthink

An extract from a 'Governance and Compliance' magazine interview with Dame Alison Carthwath, Chairman of Land Securities

Recent surveys have found that a large proportion of female NEDs in UK companies are non-UK nationals, does this suggest a UK pipeline shortage?

The number of experienced female NEDs in the UK is only just beginning to grow, so the fact that many have been sourced from America for example, which obviously is a far larger country, is no surprise. Many boards in the US have good – not brilliant – female representation. It also makes sense for FTSE 100 businesses, which tend to be international, to recruit directors who are not all from the UK.

I am on the board of Zurich Insurance – a completely multinational business. Although it is based in Zurich, it has Dutch, German, English, Scottish, Singaporean and American nationals on its board. Those individuals all have had experience of operating in other parts of the world.

We are only at the beginning of the journey to get closer to parity between male and female board representation. This debate goes further than gender – genuine socioeconomic and ethnic diversity is important too. It has gained momentum in the UK compared to other countries. As long as chairmen act responsibly and believe (I think most of them do) that the diversity pool should be increased, the talent will be found. I do not agree, therefore, that the pipeline in the UK is too small because I do not think most chairmen who are running international businesses look at it as just being a UK pool.

What are the benefits of having a truly diverse board?
It avoids groupthink – that is the simple answer. People from different backgrounds and different countries have different perspectives and, as long as the chairman creates an atmosphere that allows the debate to be wide-ranging, you get differing opinions. That is good for the executives to hear and, generally, good for all the debates that business is going through at the moment.

Businesses were traditionally organised by men for men. That is how it always was. I think businesses currently find it difficult to have generous terms that allow females to leave their career for a long period of time to bring up children. It is difficult for corporates to keep women engaged during that period. They do not see their usefulness when they are not working for them – fair enough, they are not paying them. There is not an easy solution to this. A solution cannot be legislated or regulated. The reality is that those females that do rate their career very highly will end up making sacrifices in terms of family. There will be females who do not want to go back to work either at all or full-time or in the same stressful jobs.

Dame Alison Carthwath is Chairman of Land Securities

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