Many countries have introduced or are introducing legislation to “force” companies to appoint women at board level. The question is if this is necessary, and whether this is a good thing.
I started my career at American Express. In that company women in management were taken for granted – at least half the managers were ladies. However, not more than 2 out of 10 Director level staff were women, and at the VP level the ratio was far worse. This was in the 1990’s and possibly the situation improved since then, but I doubt it will be materially different.
Is there a bias against women reaching senior positions in companies? I have come across such a bias once (not at American Express) and I was actually instrumental in resolving this. Other than this one occasion, I have only witnessed active desire on the part of senior management to have MORE (or at least SOME!) women at senior management level. Why? I can only speak from my own experience, as I do not have access to formal studies. In my experience, women tend to be very good managers. Professional, tough when required, focused, and surprising as this may sound much less likely to let their decisions be influenced by emotions. I can only assume others have the same experience. There are investment funds that focus on companies with female top managers, and there are studies that support that these outperform average returns.
If there is no bias against women in management, quite the contrary, why are there no more women at top positions?
The reason seems obvious: babies. Getting babies result in maternity leave, and this is an interruption of the career. In many cases, this would fall in the BEGINNING of the career, which is probably the most critical phase. And in addition, no matter how “modern” society may have become, the onus of taking care of the children will fall in many cases still on the female partner, even if she combines this with her career. This not only results in a distraction that male colleagues will have to a much lesser extent, it may result in limitations for things as travel or assignments abroad that do not affect male counterparts, or affects them far less.
Another reason is technology. We are an engineering company, and we employ engineers. Our management consists primarily of engineers. We are in frequent contact with schools and universities and unfortunately, less than 10% of the students are female.
I therefore believe the issue is far more fundamental and related to how our society IS. Much more fundamental changes are needed to improve the situation. In addition, I believe the less governments interfere in the working of companies, the better it is. It would be better if governments lead by example, by appointing women to half of the Minister level positions, for instance.
In conclusion I believe it would be very beneficial for our company, and for any company, to have far more women at senior positions. But I fear that the only advantage of making laws about this is to raise the attention to issue but may otherwise be a dead letter.
Maarten van Leeuwen
Group Managing Director
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