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Do women in boardroom improve performance?

A few months ago I wrote a column about my session at a Women On Boards Network (WOBN) event on building one’s brand as a board member, and today I share the views I expressed at the recent WOBN annual conference on how the presence of women on boards influences board governance and performance.

Over the last few years significant research has been carried out on this subject, with varying conclusions. Some (including one by IFC) found a positive correlation; others (like one carried out in Taiwan) reached an opposite view; and more saw no distinct impact, either positive or negative. Studies have also been carried out to see how the presence of only one woman differs from when there is more than one, creating a critical mass for the feminine voice.

As I have read the literature on the subject a number of questions kept nagging me. The first was to do with attributability. OK, performance was more this way or that way when women were members of a board, but how do we know it was their gender that made the difference? Couldn’t other factors have been the determinants – like the board focus on strategy and innovation as well as oversight; the qualities of the chairperson; the relationship between board and management?

Finally, how do we judge performance? Merely by growth and profitability? Or also taking into account other desirables, such as culture, purpose, sustainability?

I was almost amused to read in one study that found women are more conscientious in reading board papers and in their attendance at board meetings. Plus that where women are on boards the attendance of the men on those boards is also higher.

Another variable to consider is the effect of women directors who are either executive – with managerial positions; or non-executive – independent. And here the Taiwan-based study concluded that it is the non-execs who add more value, thanks to their broader and higher-level perspectives. Fair enough… as it would be for their male counterparts.

Generally, what we should be looking for among our board directors is previous experience – a portfolio of operational and board leadership positions; their ability to prevent and resolve conflicts; their networks; and other capabilities that reach beyond their gender… or how many degrees and other formal qualifications they have.

For sure we should enjoy the benefits of diversity on our boards, bringing in a collection of directors who together cover the spectrum of needed knowledge, skills and attitudes. And among these of course there should be a gender balance, just as there must be ethnic and generational balance.

My big conclusion, the consequence of my personal experience on boards and working with boards over many years, is that we should not over-generalise. I feel quite uncomfortable when I hear statements like “women are more emotionally intelligent” or “more spiteful”; or – as one study found – that they are “less economically oriented and more philanthropically focused”; or, as the IFC study showed, that “women are not as great risk-takers as men”.

Prior to addressing the WOBN conference I had a long conversation with my wife Evelyn Mungai who has been on many boards, and on not a few as their chairman (as she liked to be described). As I was already aware, her experience was aligned to mine, also leading her to an avoidance of gender stereotyping.

Let’s judge each individual on their personal merits. Let’s select board members, including women, who add needed value. Certainly there should not be tokenism, with flower girls merely decorating the boardroom. We equally disapprove of the “Old Boys’ Club” from which women are excluded. (Evelyn has smoothly entered some of those too, as an invited and welcomed member.)

What I – and my wife – want us to move to more fully is a situation where women are appointed to boards neither because of nor despite their gender. We look forward to a world where people ask: “Men? Women? So what? What difference does that make?”

Here in Kenya and elsewhere, she and I have been seeing that where boards are composed of innovative, responsible, progressive directors they will naturally include women among them, including as their leaders. Because they are good people. And don’t tell us you can’t find any.