Monday, April 7, 2008

Biology a major key in the glass ceiling for women

The minute you focus your energies on hiring your staff because you must have “diversity” or a broad range of people in your company is the minute that you are making a fatal mistake.

Clearly a lot of those men and women on our listed company boards are not the brightest light bulbs in the supermarket but we won’t go there in this column.

After the perennial report from the Human Rights Commission showed that there were a lot less female directors in New Zealand’s publicly listed companies, 45 female directors in the stock market's top 100, readers of their report could be forgiven for thinking that general work culture needs more women sitting behind the big mahogany desk simply because they were born without a particular appendage.

There is some truth to that but probably not the reason that you think.

Last week, Equal Employment Opportunities Commissioner Judy McGregor said she'd like the top 10 companies on the NZX to say they are making moves to bring women on to their boards. She points the finger at Fisher & Paykel Appliances.

"I would say about 80 per cent of its whiteware is bought by women, and it markets itself as the sponsor of the Silver Ferns, “says McGregor. "If it's good enough for women to buy the product, and market the product to women, would it not be good to have women on the board?"

NZ Herald, 6 April 2008

Granted, it maybe wise to have a broad range of thinking in the boardroom but Fisher and Paykel does focus group research on the products that they sell, with women as contributors, and in this way, the end user, usually women, have an input into what they use.

The CEO of Fisher and Paykel Appliances[FPA] is John Bongard, he has been with the company for 35 years. John started as a purchasing cadet and rose through the ranks until he was appointed Chief Executive Officer in 2004.

This is where I get to the meat that is missing from the likes of Judy McGregor and Shayne Quanchi’s-from Hallentsteins Glassons[HLG]-argument.

A large part of the “missing women” at board room level hasn’t got a lot to do with the “Old boys club” or knowing the right people, although that clearly still goes on, but it has more to do with biology.

We all know women can do most things that men do right? Right, including footing it in the boardroom but something that women also do is reproduce-no not buying identical shoes-but have our kids.

The gap that comes while a women raises a child could be as much as five years away from the workforce, starting at around 30 these days, a crucial age in the forming of a lifelong career in the boardroom, and on the way to the top, and I would argue fatal in terms of developing the skills needed to get good boardroom positions in our listed companies.

Blaming others for a biological fact for your lack of representation at the long table is ignoring the blatantly obvious.

Two examples of how women in this country back up my argument, but there are many more, are the omnipresent Helen Clark, Prime Minister of New Zealand and the former CEO of Telecom, Teresa Gattung.

Now regardless of how bad or good you might think either of these two are and were at their prospective jobs, and I think they were truly awful, they rose to the very top of their professions.

There are, however, a couple of things these two women have in common. Sacrifice and determination to get to the top.

It is no secret that the personal lives of Clark and Gattung have been filled with sacrifice. Neither having children, or had successful and fulfilled relationships with the opposite sex.

Is it a coincidence that these two have lackluster personal lives? I think not.

We all know how many men out there have sacrificed family life, hardly see the kids and end up divorced simply because they were married to their career.

More time was put into Helen and Teresa’s careers, that is what they obviously wanted, and fair enough they both achieved their goals. Well done.

While there are women who are able to do both the mother thing and have a career, I don’t think it is possible to do both well and long term.

Jens Mueller, of the Waikato School of Management, who set up a year ago, says about 30 per cent of the 320 directors on the site are very well-qualified women. "If you broaden your search you will sweep up some superbly qualified women," he says.

Now the Waikato University is the most PC mad institution in the country and it is no surprise that their School of Management has a wrong headed approach by focusing on women as possible candidates for director positions rather than the best individual for the job.

When you go down this track you follow the University thinking that ultimately there must also be a quota of Maori, Pacific and Asian candidates nominated simply because they fit some grouping rather than being the best for the position.

Presumably one day there will also be a lack of left handed, lesbian, tea growing women from the Alaskan foothills not being represented in our board rooms, but will they be good employees?

Seeing as there is so much emphasis on men and the positions that they reach in business vs. the low levels that women reach, it may do just as well to measure in some way how well men do in running a business vs. women to get a better idea of how competent each are?

That might truly tell us something.

Related Share Investor reading

Business Mis-Management
Fisher & Paykel Appliances: In a spin over nothing
Telecom rewards ex chief for mediocrity

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The Intelligent Investor: The Definitive Book on Value Investing. A Book of Practical Counsel (Revised Edition) by Benjamin Graham
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