Gender parity shouldn't be key driver for better board representation - women simply know more than men

7 March 2022 | 6 min read | PR
Paul MacKenzie-Cummins
Paul MacKenzie-Cummins

Research conducted by Clearly is likely to stoke the roaring fires of the women in leadership debate on this International Women’s Day. The findings support a long-held belief of mine that the greater amount of business-related knowledge one acquires, the more effective a leader one becomes. Trouble is, there is a lack of correlation between what the evidence says, and businesses do.

To date, the campaign for greater gender parity has centred largely on the moral imperative and the overwhelming evidence which supports the fact that organisations organised along these lines financially outperform those that are not.

Indeed, in an article published in March by The Guardian, figures from McKinsey show that “companies in the top quartile for gender diversity on executive teams were 25 per cent more likely to have above-average profitability than companies in the bottom.”

This is to be welcomed, as is the fact that 40 per cent of FTSE100 board positions are now held by women. In 2012, this figure stood at a lowly 15.6 per cent. Yet there are just eight female CEOs in the FTSE100 today – up by a measly four in a decade. This is, frankly, pi*s poor.

Whenever these figures are updated, the media interest in striking. But they fail to explain the reason as to why this is important, and it isn’t simply a need to have greater gender parity at the top of the organogram as our research has found.

Women know more than men, does that make them better leaders?

More than 500 business leaders and senior executives took part in our study. Our results found that female executives consume 28 per cent more thought leadership content each week than their male counterparts.

On average, women read, watch or listen to articles, blogs, whitepapers, videos and podcasts for an average of 87 minutes over the course of seven days compared to 67 minutes for men. Taken over the course of a year, women will invest 10.7 days consuming thought leadership content versus 8.2 days for men.

It therefore follows that if women are accessing (and processing) more information than men, they have a greater breadth of knowledge and insight that can be drawn upon when it comes to decision making.

Female executives consume 28 per cent more thought leadership content than men

In other words, they know more than men because they consume more than men. Of course, I am not positing that women are ‘better’ at leading than men simply because they have more information in their mental locker – that would be over-simplifying things. Nor am I looking to debate which of the sexes is better or stronger than the other.

Rather, the intention is to broaden the scope of the current campaign for greater gender representation and encourage leadership teams to think about whether they are missing out on business-critical leadership potential by excluding women from top positions.

Apathy caused by information overload

The gender debate has been at the top of the organisational agenda since the Lord Davies Review was published in 2011, and the amount of progress that has been made to address the lack of female representation at senior level is to be applauded.

However, while the media have done a great job in banging the drum for greater equality, I feel there has been a degree of over-communication to the extent that business leaders are simply not listening or reacting to the call as much as they did.

Yes, the message about achieving greater gender parity in the boardroom is clearly being received and understood. But the issue is no longer being acted upon; apathy has set in.

When we were young, our parents would tell us not to eat all the sweets because children that do will see their teeth will fall out. And we all did as we were told, didn’t we? Of course not, we did the opposite.

By drawing attention to the consequences of eating too many sweets, our parents were inadvertently implying that although it was probably wrong for us to do so, other children just like us ate the sweets too. The consequences of our actions were deemed less severe because they affected everyone we knew, not just ourselves individually.

Marketing communications works in the same way. By giving greater visibility to an issue (i.e., “Women are poorly represented in the C-suite among the UK’s biggest companies”) you actually give affirmation (‘social proof’) that the problem not only exists, but it is also commonplace and more worrying it is then perceived as the ‘norm’ for most people.

By giving greater visibility to the issue of fewer women occupying the top leadership role, you give affirmation that this is OK. This in turn reduces the perceived need for concerted action to address the imbalance.

This creates a safety-in-numbers mentality: the more you see that others are experiencing the same challenges as you, the less inclined you become to change what you are doing. It’s rather like bystander apathy, where you hear a person screaming on a busy street but don’t rush to help because no one else is.

So, rather than highlighting what everyone else is doing (i.e. “Businesses are not doing enough to address the gender imbalance in their organisations”) focus on the positive effects associated with such action (“At a time of great complexity and economic uncertainty precipitated by the coronavirus pandemic, organisations can emerge from the crisis in better shape with a greater diversity across their leadership teams.”).

New messages are needed

Awareness of the lack of diversity has never been an issue. However, the messaging we have seen over the last few years would appear to have run out of steam in terms of increasing female representation at the very top of the organogram. The movement for change needs its fire to be relit and that can only be done by a shift in the messaging being communicated.

As we edge further into the post-pandemic era and focus once more in business growth, brands can either continue in the same vein as they did before the pandemic changed everything, or they can take on board some of the leanings of our whitepaper and consider: ‘Does our predominantly male-led organisation have all the answers we need to position us from which we can begin to re-grow? Or could we benefit from bringing more women into key leadership roles and tap into the additional knowledge they have acquired over and above their male counterparts?’