A global perspective on women in the boardroom Esther Teeken, COO, IoD

On Wednesday 6 October, IoD Chief Operating Officer and Board member Esther Teeken addressed the Standard Bank Top Women Global Virtual Summit, discussing the challenge of getting more women on boards and how the Institute of Directors is using its influence to make this happen.

Read her full speech below:

Women all over the world face a challenge when it comes to reaching board room positions.

Women are missing opportunities to develop their board credentials during their careers, frequently lacking senior sponsorship or mentoring, so are not recognised as board potential.

Women often can’t rise to the board level because they’ve been denied opportunities earlier in their careers. Sitting on a board requires management experience, and biases often keep women in lower-level positions.

A lack of self-confidence among women and a hesitation to pursue executive level jobs also causes both men and women to question the abilities and dedication of female employees.

Women also have to deal with societal expectations and popular culture which reinforces the stereotypes of women as homemakers and men as leaders.

Finally women can feel uncomfortable doing the networking required to achieve boardroom spots, which is often male-dominated.

As a result of all of these challenges, the pipeline of women qualified for board positions is relatively small.

But the case for more women on boards is strong.

Studies have repeatedly shown that increasing diversity is not only the right thing to do for an organization’s culture, it also leads to better business outcomes. Increased diversity leads to smarter decision-making, contributes to an organization’s bottom line, and powers innovation, among other benefits. Diversity improves performance across companies and across industries, especially when the important threshold of three women on the board is reached.

Inclusive and diverse boards are more likely to be effective boards, better able to understand their customers and stakeholders and to benefit from fresh perspectives, new ideas, vigorous challenges and broad experience. This in turn leads to better decision making as many studies over the last years have illustrated.

Female directors enhance board independence. Women take NED roles more seriously, preparing more conscientiously for meetings. Women ask the awkward questions (and I know as I hear that a lot) and decisions are less likely to be nodded through.

Homogeneity i.e. same gender among directors can produce ‘group-think’. Women bring different perspectives to the table, the debate and the decisions. We are seeing this happening when the diversity level is low in the Professional development courses we run. Studies have shown that three women are required to change boardroom dynamics, and a ‘critical mass’ of 30% or more women at board level or in senior management positions produces the best financial results.

So what does business need to do differently to ensure more women make it into board director positions?

In my own journey to becoming a board director here at the Institute of Directors in London I found a lot of confidence strength in having a supporting circle around me existing of my husband, my family members, friends and other female colleagues& business associations. As many of you all probably have experienced too or will experience I thought I needed to be much older and showing a longer work experience track to actually be an interesting candidate to join a board, and I started to doubt myself. Nervous that I wasn’t able to answer questions in the right way just like I got nervous when I got the invite to share with you all today my story and opinion, and the easiest thing was to say no thank you, I am too busy. I don’t speak sophisticated English as others, I am a proud mum of 2 children trying to juggle work-life balance and my insecurity took over thinking that I was not good enough, but I was wrong and the chair of the board of the Institute of Directors called me unexpectantly to ask me to start the process to join his board. It didn’t matter that I am Dutch, that I am direct in my communications and that I am a younger woman. He and other board members saw that I can play a valuable role with them as part of the board by being me, by sharing my experiences and providing different perspectives. I am proud of this and now..

Now I have reached this position I hope I can influence change through the Institute of Directors to help women all over the world. I have a daughter of 11 years old and not only as a mother but also as a professional I would like to be a role model for her and others, if chooses a business career, I would like her journey to be smoother than mine, less doubts about herself and that it will be ‘normal’ for her to achieve what she wants without getting the stamp of being a fulltime working mum, who can’t always be at the schoolgrounds to pick up her children.

To really understand how we can help women we need to understand what they need, so one of my first jobs here at the Institute of Directors has been to commission research to find out how we could adapt to increase our female membership.

Our research found:

  • Gender diversity requires more than having a policy in place that is focused on diversity of thought. It requires leaders who recognize gender inequality to begin with, and to start putting the right policies in place to tackle it. These should not be focused on women – it’s not the women who need to be ‘fixed’.
  • It’s the system. It’s all the performance standards, policies, procedures, structures and norms that are built with an age-old ideal in mind.
  • There are a number of actions that chairs, boards and executives can put in place today to accelerate progress. This includes setting the tone from the top –making gender parity a priority throughout the entire organization and holding leadership accountable to make progress.
  • The benefits of diversity extend beyond the four walls of any single company. The trickle-down effect of women in the boardroom (breaking down stereotypes, encouraging girls and young women to pursue careers traditionally dominated by men, and breaking down the wage gap) are all important steps along the way to greater economic opportunity for women and to more inclusive societies.
  • We also discovered that women are clear in what they need to help them achieve their career goals; they do feel comfortable networking, – if they can recognise themselves in the network (ie there are plenty of other women at events) and that they benefit from support with training, mentoring, and from seeing clear role models that encourage their confidence by reflecting their age, stage in life and size of their business.

So, like every organisation, we need to put Diversity, Equality and Inclusion at the heart of our strategic planning; commit to accountable metrics and transparent scrutiny; and make it a priority as leaders to ensure every one of our employees feel respected, safe and acknowledged within the workplace. The best organisations, the ones who are reaping the benefits of diversity, are the ones where their leaders are at the helm of the inclusion effort.

Of course, this diversity must be authentic. We need to move from ‘performative’ statements to leading from the top, committing to understanding the challenges and ‘doing the work’ to overcome them.

In my position here at the Institute of Directors I feel that responsibility to ensure we are doing everything we can possibly to support more women.

We already have some excellent initiatives in place:

  • Our Boardroom Africa programmes offer with governmental funding professional director training to African women to ensure more women from diverse backgrounds have the tools they need to succeed. Over the duration of the relationship up to today we have trained almost 200 women board members through the relationship with TBrA and I am looking forward to many more.

But we know there is more to be done and over the next few months we will be rolling out a series of new initiatives to encourage women everywhere to believe in their own abilities and to reach their potential.

We want to:

Enable a supportive community of women within our membership and beyond

By creating an international community focused on connecting women directors and aspiring directors via a combination of virtual and physical events.

We want to:

Share inspiring role models

By profiling inspirational women from inside and outside the Institute of Directors, sharing their stories across the media and all social media channels and working with these people as mentors for other directors.

We want to:

Develop the skills of current and future women directors.

By encouraging more women to undertake the professional training and development they need to give them the skills and confidence to go for the top jobs, it is part of the lifelong learning concept which is something I value and experience every day.

And we want to:

Build a more diverse Institute of Directors.

By sharing and educating all our members and stakeholders on the case for board diversity and the role of directors in building diverse, successful organisations and society.

To conclude

So, we know that women are still underrepresented on boards and we also know that business benefits when boards are more diverse. But we are also beginning to realise that it isn’t only that women need the tools and belief to reach the top, but that the business & governmental environment needs to change to enable women to feel comfortable.

Change is happening and progress is being made, but there is more to be done and I hope the headway we are making here at the Institute of Directors can contribute to that change.

Better directors for a better world

The IoD supports directors and business leaders across the UK and beyond to learn, network and build successful, responsible businesses.
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