Is football holding women back from boardrooms?

Last week a handful of men experienced, at first hand, what it is like to be outnumbered at senior levels.

The Women’s Business Forum attracted more than 420 high powered delegates from the UK and America. Of these just 13% were men. According to the Davies Report, this is exactly the same percentage as there were women on the UK’s boards in 2010.

The Forum was looking at how to encourage more women to go on UK boards – and the views of the issues and the opportunities were wide-ranging.

The content was compelling but mid-morning I looked around the room and was suddenly struck by the body language of the men. I jotted down ‘Men seem bemused, rather out of it. What are they thinking?’. And then a (male) speaker got up and made a joke about Manchester United. Suddenly the chaps were engaged, laughing, sitting back in their chairs. Now they were back on home territory.

I mentioned this to my husband in the evening and his comment was ‘Women have been much better at adapting to a male culture than men have to women’s’. To be honest, I’m not sure I agree with this. How many women go out of their way to become knowledgeable and enthusiastic about football in order to join in the boardroom banter?

This is not a frivolous point. Praesta, which coaches around 120 senior women a year, says that highly competent women can find very male cultures start to undermine their confidence and ability. Very male client entertaining – such as quad bike racing, the conversation all about football and the real business being done in the gents. Individually these aren’t a big deal, but all together they can put even the most capable senior executive off her stride.

Caroline Webb, co-author of McKinsey’s research, How Centered Leaders achieve Extraordinary Results, spoke at the Forum about how women have for too long been playing to other people’s strengths, not their own.

The McKinsey research highlighted five capabilities which are at the heart of ‘centered leadership’. These are to find meaning from work, convert emotions such as fear or stress into opportunity, leverage connections and community, act in the face of risk, and sustain energy – both physically and mentally.

And their view is that centred leadership is geared to women’s strengths.

Allan Leighton, former ceo of Asda and former chairman of Royal Mail and other businesses, could not have been more passionate that companies must have men and women to be successful. He urged the audience to ‘hire the best brains – which have no regard to gender, race or physical ability. If you hire the very best brains, quite simply you will outperform your competitors’.

He compared the muscles of a sprinter with a marathon runner (something about slow and fast twitch muscles – the men cheered up again at this, we were back on sport). The point was that you need both speed and endurance on a board – and that will come from a mix of men and women who bring different qualities.

So we had all these advocates of mixed boards – but how will we get there?

Eleanor Mills, deputy editor of the Sunday Times took part in a very feisty panel session. Her view is that headhunters have a key role to play in the way they search for the talent to join a board. Garry Wilson of turnaround business, Endless challenged this and said women are not good at making clear what they want – we need to be more direct. He may have a point?

Through all the debates, one thing was clear. There was agreement that boards are better with a mix of men and women. The only disagreement is the route to achieve this.

While women must play to their strengths – perhaps it is time that we became passionate about football. Only then will we really be equals in the boardroom?

Victoria Tomlinson is founder and owner of Harrogate-based PR consultancy, Northern Lights. A former director of Ernst & Young, she started her career as a graduate trainee for Plessey and later with Bradbury Wilkinson, the banknote printers, travelling around the world to sell banknotes to foreign governments. She joined Arthur Young as part of their start-up marketing team and was made a director of client services on the management committee and managing a 100-strong division. Victoria sits on the boards of Bradford University School of Management, Northern Ballet Theatre and Common Purpose North Yorkshire. She is a Prince’s Trust mentor.