“That’s an excellent suggestion, Miss Triggs. Perhaps one of the men here would like to make it”. That was the caption accompanying a cartoon projected to the room by writer and editor Dina Medland at the start of a panel discussion on macho boardroom culture.
Bringing together four other highly successful female business leaders, the discussion centred on how businesses can rid themselves of this trait. Sitting alongside Medland at the maiden First Women Summit were Vin Murria, who has sold her two technology businesses for a combined $2bn, Sam Smith, the first CEO of a London stockbroker, Ruth Shaw, chief executive of the Sports Grounds Safety Authority, and Ruth Sacks, programme director at Women for the Board and a senior lecturer at Westminster Business School.
A panel discussion earlier in the day had focussed on whether the UK should be introducing boardroom quotas for female representation, rather than allowing businesses to set targets personally, while this one looked further at the kind of behaviour that goes on when executives meet.
Murria kicked things off by flatly declaring that it is not difficult to bring about change. “A lot of decision making is all about common sense. The biggest culture change we have to make is to believe we can do it, and want to do it. It’s as simple as that,” she added.
“We’re always saying we lack confidence, but do you actually think men don’t? They fake it, so do the same. Hand on heart i’ve seen some amazing CEOs and chairman who before they stand up and speak have to take a glass of whiskey.”
Read more about the First Women Summit:
- Flexible working requires a cultural change to work
- Are quotas bad for business?
- Educating girls on under-represented sectors
Shaw said that, despite working in a male-dominated sector (sport), she does have power with a small company. To the envy of many football fans, she has a card that gets her into any ground in the country.
“I do find myself quite often as the only woman in boardrooms, or only woman at dinners. I think that macho culture is more about how people behave, rather than male or female,” she explained.
“It’s about hogging talking time, holding court or telling irrelevant anecdotes – all things I’ve seen and experienced. So I think the reason that should be changed is you’re then missing out on relevant voices and chances for collaboration.”
Explaining how a macho culture is not all bad, she believes it can lead to people generating a “thicker skin” and “robustly challenge” without taking it personally. She recommended taking those challenging conversations seriously but not personally.
“I try and call out bad behaviour sometimes, and find that a good tactic is to ask someone who has said something inappropriate to repeat it. It’s about trying to change culture but with a light approach – coming back with power and confidence.”
Murria added that she’s always had another female board member, used as a grounding. She cited the words of Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, who said in her book that to have an impact on boards you have to not only be in the room but let everyone know you’re there – rather than just taking notes.
“We have to understand behaviour patterns of how we put ourselves in difficult positions, but this isn’t going to change unless you do it. Unless you make yourself visible and available and determined nobody is going to give you anything,” she told the room.
Picking up the buck, Smith of finnCap said that it has taken her the period of time she’s spent at her company (eight years) to get female representation up to 30 per cent – but she’s still the only female member of senior management. “I don’t have the pool of people, but we do need more help from the top.”
Sacks put her viewpoint across and said it is all about believing in yourself. Get a mentor or support from somewhere, she urged. “Ambition is not a dirty word. It is about challenging and making comments in an assertive way – showing you have something to offer.”
Woman on boards has received a lot of attention recently, with business secretary Vince Cable recently coming out and declaring that the voluntary approach to female board representation is “working”. New FTSE 100 statistics show that women’s representation on boards has increased to 22.8 per cent, up from 20.7 per cent in March 2014. For FTSE 250 businesses, representation is up 17.4 per cent, up from 15.6 per cent in March 2014. There are also no all-male boards left in the FTSE 100.
However, this debate was not about the number of women on boards, but how much their voice was being heard. With years of experience in this setting, the speakers urged confidence, assertiveness and a little bit of faking it if you want to be taken seriously at the top table.
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