Women on Boards: how to get there, how to flourish there

In the News
Posting date: 13 March 2023

To celebrate Women's History Month and International Women's Day, our CEO, Bev White, and Chief People Officer, Melanie Hayes talk about how women can progress their careers to board level and make a difference. This article first appeared on ComputerWeekly.com and on NashSquared.com

Having a good network, listening to advice, taking on more responsibility coupled with drive and commitment can help women reach a place on the board

As International Women’s Day comes round again, the technology industry continues to make slow incremental progress towards achieving a healthy gender balance. The 2022 Nash Squared Digital Leadership Report showed that 14% of digital leaders are women. This is far below where it should be – but nevertheless it is the highest proportion we’ve recorded yet. The hope must be that as the pipeline fills from below, the rate of change will speed up.

In the meantime, how can talented women in technology break through that ceiling and reach a Boardroom position?

The recently published FTSE annual Women Leaders Review found that 40% of FTSE 350 Board positions are now occupied by women – this is really encouraging progress, especially as the target has been reached three years early. So, how can we see similar results in tech Boardrooms specifically? And how can women make their mark and flourish there, acting as wayfinders for others to follow?

Getting there

It’s important to appreciate that there are no easy paths to the Board – for either men or women. It’s tough and competitive to make it up the corporate ladder. And there are trade offs that need to be made.

Getting to a senior executive position means devoting a significant portion of your life to work, and that almost inevitably means some impacts on other areas. This applies whether you’re a woman or a man, are in a couple or are single, have children or not, or have other hobbies, interests and passions. Whoever you are, you’ll need to be prepared to make some sacrifices.

That doesn’t mean you can’t create a good work-life balance and have a rounded life. But it does mean hard work, commitment and a genuine drive to perform highly.

Another key point, therefore, is to do your homework and make sure getting to a senior position is what you really want. Some people, of both genders, reach mid-career and realize that actually they’re happy in a middle management position or would rather go deeper into a specialism than try to climb higher on the seniority ladder. That’s a completely valid decision.

If you do want to make it to the Board position, then there are a number of things that could really help you on the way. For women in particular, having a good network around you of colleagues inside the business or external contacts who you can turn to for advice, support and encouragement is invaluable.

Join a women’s network or indeed other specialist groups relevant to your field. In particular, see if you can find a mentor (who could be of either gender) to act as a sounding board, coach and guide. Having a woman mentor who has followed this path is helpful though as they can speak from a point of knowing the challenges and the opportunities and offer practical advice.

At those times when you’re experiencing doubt, you feel like you’ve hit a brick wall or you’re having to deal with new and unfamiliar things, the wisdom and experience of a mentor can help you push on through and keep growing.

The advice and support of others is golden – but it’s also essential to stay true to yourself. Don’t try to be something you’re not. Find a way of working where you’re comfortable with yourself, but are also pushing yourself to develop. Don’t be afraid to speak up when you encounter poor behaviors either. Don’t let sexism or other unacceptable attitudes perpetuate themselves by staying silent.

Finally, related to this, you can’t just expect that the next step will simply come. The reality is that we still don’t live in an equal and inclusive world. It’s not a level playing field. So you’ll need firstly to be patient and secondly to put your hand up for responsibilities that may go over and above your current role – offering to lead a project for example or to chair a committee. It’s a bit like at school where extra-curricular activities gain you credits. Show a willingness to take on new challenges and opportunities.

Flourishing there

So you got there? Congratulations! But what now…?

Taking up a Board position can feel strange and unfamiliar. It’s a bit like watching a sport you don’t know much about – baseball, for example. You sit there and think, “What are the rules here? What does good look like? And who’s actually winning?”

Just so in the Boardroom. You’ve got to get your bearings and understand the rules of the game. This means carrying on all the qualities that probably helped you get there – being inquisitive, curious, asking questions, digging deeper.

It also means that you don’t just accept what’s in front of you. After all, you joined the Board to make a positive impact and contribution. Some Boards are dominated by certain characters. If women are in the minority, they (and the quieter men) may find it hard to get a word in edgeways. If that’s the case, do something about it – go to the chairman, for example, and flag your dissatisfaction and that you want to contribute more. They’ll probably give you first slot at the next meeting!

Strive to make a positive and proactive contribution. Be prepared for the fact that, if you’re going to have an impact, this may mean suggesting new things that could meet with some opposition. Again, it comes down to being confident and comfortable in your own skin.

Remember also that Boards succeed or fail together. The best Boards are a collaborative unit, working together for the best interests of the business. Play a full part in that, bring the best of yourself to every discussion, and be prepared to listen and learn – and you’ll find yourself continuing to learn and grow as a professional.

Make yourself available to other women, too. Don’t be one of those who are accused of ‘pulling up the ladder’ behind them. Be prepared to act as a mentor; give time to emerging talent; be a voice for women in the business.

Door ajar?

There is still nothing like enough progress in getting women to the Boardroom – and ethnic minority representation is arguably even worse. However, there are signs of things moving slowly in the right direction.

It’s the responsibility of all leaders to own the issue and create the channels to bring more diverse talent through at all levels including the C-suite. This should be an agenda item in itself at every Board meeting.

It’s still harder for women than men to reach the top echelons. However, the feeling is growing that, if you push at the door in the right way, it may just open.