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Finding value, voice as women on boards

Debra Brown ceo
WHEN I was five years old my father took me out to the fields and put me on a tractor. His intent was for me to drive that tractor. It did not matter that I was too young for such a task and it also did not matter to him that I was a girl.

I was oblivious to the fact that men ran the world. It was injected into my DNA that a girl — and one of pretty much any age apparently — could do whatever a man or a boy could do. That lesson, which I am profoundly grateful for, was deeply ingrained early on.

Unfortunately, not every woman has learned this lesson from such a young age and, not every man is like my father, promoting genders as equal in value. Also unfortunate is that discrimination of women remains a serious problem around the world, across society and the workplace, up to and including the C-suite and in the boardroom.

The good news is that there is renewed pressure and consideration for enhanced diversity within organisations in leadership and on boards. At Governance Solutions and The Institute of Corporate Directors Zimbabwe, we have long been advocates for board diversity, not just because it is the right thing to do societally, but because the research clearly shows that it enhances and improves corporate results and governance performance.

The question of women having positive impact on the bottom line has been proven by the data for more than two decades. In 2002 I was part of a team that wrote a seminal research report for The Conference Board of Canada called Women on Boards: Not Just the Right Thing, but the Bright Thing .

We found that boards with a least three women on them enjoy higher asset growth and returns. This is just one of several significant benefits and evidence we identified.

There have been numerous reports since that confirm and build on this work, so the question about the positive impacts of women in leadership was answered and put to bed a long time ago.

However, the access and opportunity problem has not yet been solved. Why is this?

While a complex issue, the main thing is that until recently there have been few obvious or apparent consequences for gender, and most other types of, discrimination. We have had the carrot, but not the stick. For real change to take root it will take both the carrot and the stick.

The carrot is that our bottom line and overall performance will be improved, but we often don’t do what’s best for us without there being a stick to prod us along.

The stick is understanding the consequences of not going after the carrot.

Here are some of the sticks that are prodding awareness of the consequences of gender discrimination:

The #MeToo movement has provided pressure, heightened awareness, and shifted the conversation to one of consequences. No one wants to be the next person in the news accused of injustices perpetrated on women.

Institutional investors have also brought awareness of consequences. The largest institutional investors in the world are pulling investments out of companies that don’t have diverse boards.

Governments are shifting to consequences. Some have gone as far as passing legislation requiring things like pay equity and mandating gender parity in the boardroom.

Boards themselves have shifted to consequences by setting targets for diversity, going public about it, and holding themselves accountable to those targets.

At its core, this is an issue of injustice and when I say injustice, I donot only mean the injustice of gender discrimination and what that means for women. I mean the injustice this perpetuates on the corporation.

A corporation is a person under the law. It is a helpless child but for the directing mind of the corporate body; and that is the board of directors. Corporations all over the world are being robbed of the enhanced value women bring to the boardroom. This is an injustice to the corporation; thehelpless child.

Now that we understand the problem, know the benefits, and are clear on the consequences, what can women do to help rectify this injustice?

Here is some advice:

Find your value and voice

If a woman feels she isnot good enough or as good as a man, this is reflective of self-image, how she feels about herself, rather than how men feel about her. If you feel less about yourself, others will pick up on that and feel less about you. Finding your own value and voice takes intentionality. Be intentional in your own growth, competence, focus, and purpose.

Be prepared for the moment

There are some steps every woman can take to be prepared for those many moments in life where you can add your own unique value and voice.

Be prepared. Remember, when you are prepared for the moment, the moment is prepared for you. In other words, in life you will be presented with opportunities to add value and contribute to conversation, deliberations and decision-making. In those moments, the best way to have your voice heard is to have something to say. Be prepared. Don’t wait, be intentional about preparation.

Be clear: remember that clarity attracts, and confusion repels. When you are prepared you can be clearer in your interactions. Many people — men and women alike — confuse people when they feel the need to be the loudest and most frequent voice in the room. Simply because they speak so often, they are neither clear nor focused. So, be prepared and be clear.

Be proactive: Don’t wait for people to call on you to speak. Know where you can add the most value and proactively engage in the conversation. You are prepared and you are clear in your thinking and messaging, so you can be confident and proactive in your approach.

Do not be shy

The collective voice of women calling out injustice can change the narrative. That means this is not the time to be shy.

It also means helping your sisters find their voice. You can begin by helping other women see themselves in a true light; to help them see themselves as good enough. The best way to do this is to encourage them.

The word encourage literally means to give courage. Similarly, when we discourage people, we literally take away their courage. When we encourage other women to be all they can be, we are giving them the courage they need to be just that.

Be a role model

Research shows that the more women there are on a board of directors, the more women there are in senior management. The more women there are in senior management, the more women there are in middle management, and so on. It begins at the top. When we know ourselves and step away from false humility, we will know we are enough, and we can be role models to the women who follow us. If they can see it, they can be it.

Change the narrative

How we change the narrative really is the million-dollar question. Here are four actions you can take:

Call out injustice when you see it. This goes for both women and men. When you see something say something. Sometimes all we need to do is confront the issue head on. This works when people are willing to change, but they just aren’t aware of their own bias.

Catch yourself when you discriminate and change your behaviour. Teach yourself how to be different. This is all about remediation. Once we become aware of our biases, we need to change our behaviour. This will work if we are both willing to change and we find ways to learn how.

Rise above it and consider the source it comes from. Pick your battles. I am not saying, “just be tough, suck it up and take it.” What I am saying is that there is some benefit to having a bit of a thick skin and considering the source the discrimination comes from. There will be times that you will come up against people who are neither willing nor able to change. If you are in a position of leadership, you will want to find ways to remove the offending individual. If you are not in leadership, you will want to report offenses to your superiors. But don’t wear the offenses personally. You are enough. You are valuable. You are not the sum of someone else’s view of you. Consider the source.

Teach your sons and daughters not to discriminate. If we truly want permanent culture change with respect to diversity and inclusion for our sons and daughters, we must teach them about justice and equality across gender and race. That’s where we can have our greatest legacy in the diversity war against injustice.

Be the woman you were meant to be

Who are you going to be? Will you be the woman that fits into the mold of those who would discriminate against you based on your gender? Or will you find your voice and your value and be the person you were created to be, then to fulfill your unique and invaluable life’s purpose? Should you choose the latter, focus on being:

A leader — not a boss. A boss is someone people follow because they must; they are above them in a hierarchy. A leader is someone people follow because they want to; they are drawn to them because of their courage, their competence, their character, and their vision.

A leader who learns. Learn all you can about what it means to be a great leader and apply what you learn so it becomes natural for you.

The leader you were meant to be. You are unique. There is only one you. Invest the time to know who you are, to understand fully who you were created to be, and to believe in yourself enough to not let gender get in the way of your unique purpose and calling.

Your authentic self. Do not try to be someone else, or someone you think others may want you to be. You be you.

Whether you, like me, learned early in life that while there are different genders there is equality among them, or whether you are learning the lessons of equality later in life, the important thing is that the lesson is learned, the narrative is changed, and justice prevails.

Brown is the CEO of Governance Solutions, Canada a professional services firm that helps board members and executives understand their role in governance so they can succeed in the boardroom. — boardroomtalk@icd.co.zw

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