DON’T be startled by the title of this column. It may come as a surprise, considering the research we have done, looking at the performance of women on boards in South-East Asia.
Our research findings conclusively demonstrated that women directors do add to the bottom line. However, it was not conclusive whether the board that appoints women directors is already enlightened. One may presume that these boards are those that avoid groupthink.
But the question we are pursuing in this column is whether women in board positions are providing an enabling environment for other women to develop corporate leadership skills. Unfortunately, some anecdotal evidence appears to point to the lack of support among women themselves.
To explore this issue, we spoke with several different senior male board members, including a chairman, all advocates of appointing women directors. To our dismay, we found that these individuals have since made a U-turn on this issue due to their personal experiences – and we don’t blame them. One chairman had previously campaigned very hard to have women directors on the board, and had personally pushed the nomination committee to review only potential female candidates. The board that he was chairing was dealing with issues related to women and having women on board would enable him to be fully aware of these issues.
Enlightened chairman? Definitely.
But there is more to the story. The chairman had to push very hard for the other board members to agree that, with the upcoming retirement of one of their senior male colleagues, a woman would step into his shoes. The chairman even suggested that all the candidates’ names be removed so that there would no bias against any of the candidates.
After a long process where many candidates were reviewed, a woman was finally chosen and welcomed onto the board. The chairman was pleased to see his vision become reality. But soon the other board members began to question the chairman’s wisdom in appointing a woman to the board. They had just cause: the newbie board member had started to argue incessantly with the CEO on nearly every issue. She insisted that her actions were about governance, but in fact, it was person- al. The CEO, rightly or wrongly, was not giving in to the newbie board member’s demands to remove certain staff.
The new board member spent most of her time providing her views to management on how the CEO was wrong and needed to understand that certain staff should be retired or sacked. By doing so, she was breaking the cardinal rule that board members do not go down to management level and “micro manage”; that was the role of the CEO.
The split in the board began. The new female director even opposed the appointment of another woman on the board, despite the fact that the board was reviewing more women and children’s issues, which constituted a main area of business for the company. The director was so dead set against having another woman on board that she went out of her way to lobby the other board members that a divorcee should not represent women and children’s issues.
We spoke to another chairman, who has also been an advocate of female board members. However, he found that the reality did not always live up to the promise. He observed that when the board deliberated on issues, there was a lack of willingness to conduct open discussions as the female board members were reluctant to get too personal.
Instead, the discussion was carried out through Whatsapp chats and emails. And instead of respecting the protocol of confidentiality among directors, screenshots of the chats were taken and sent to staff to prove a point that one director was making against another.
This was poor behaviour on two counts. Firstly, everyone knows that if you pick and choose certain parts of the conversation to ‘screenshot’, the points of that decision will be taken out of context. Secondly, to circulate the screenshots to staff is a violation of the company’s act, as directors’ conversations are confidential and cannot be shared outside their circle of trust.
The chairman said that he finally began to really understand the perils of smartphone technology!
Although the chairman supported equal gender opportunity, he felt that he had not witnessed such bad behaviour in his 49 years in corporate life. Throughout the entire episode, he had seen women directors directly approaching staff, creating unhappiness between staff members on retirement payouts, lobbying board members against the CEO, circulating screenshots of emails between directors and Whatsapp messages of the board’s discussion on issues, as well as bcc’ing her spouse on some of the emails sent to other staff members.
Looking completely exhausted, the chairman said, “I cannot support this agenda as the havoc that has been created by giving them an equal seat at my boardroom has been extremely painful for the firm and the board.”
His view following this episode is that no more newbie women directors will be appointed to any of the boards for his cluster of companies. He reminded us of the famous Madeline Albright saying, “there is a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women”.
Although we can argue that this isn’t always the case and that there are professional women board members who do add diversity and a non-groupthink approach to issues, it is scenarios like the above that cause us to lose those who could have been champions for women board members.
These anecdotes illustrate an important point: women who have been given the first step towards gender equality in the corporate world must help to mentor other women who follow in their footsteps, to nurture greater professionalism in the board community.
Otherwise, these women simply do not deserve their place on the board. We are here to promote quality along with equality.
© CORSTON-SMITH ASSET MANAGEMENT SDN BHD 2014