Why it pays to give women a place in the boardroom

5 April 2012

Judy Lowe, Construction Skills

There's a whole host of reasons to get more women in the board rooms of construction companies argues Judy Lowe, deputy chair of  Construction Skills – so what are we waiting for?

“There are more people on our Board called Geoff than there are women.”  That chance remark in a meeting yesterday made me wonder about construction company boards’ positioning on gender equality.  So with Lord Davies’ 2012 update to his Report on ‘Women on Boards’ newly released, it seems like a good time to revisit progress since February 2011.

At first sight, Mervyn Davies’ Report makes encouraging reading:  197 new female appointments to FTSE 100 Boards in a year, the biggest ever reported increase in the proportion of women since records began.  They still only make up 15.6% of directors, but if that rate of progress were to be maintained, we would reach Davies’ recommended target of 25% by 2015.  A year ago, by contrast, one of the more striking quotes in his original report was the Equalities and Human Rights Commission’s view that “at the present rate of change, it will take 70 years to achieve gender-balanced boardrooms.”  Indeed one of the triggers for the 2010 survey was the fact that female participation had increased by only 0.8% in the preceding three years.

At the next tier down though, the FTSE 250, where you first encounter construction firms, women still account for fewer than 10% of directorships, as they did in 2011.  And nearly 45% of boards are still all-male.

So what has been the progress since last year specifically within our industry?  A year ago, fewer than half the top companies had a woman on their board.  And Skanska and Bouygues, with four each, really pushed up the averages.  In the intervening year, 6 out of the top 9 boards have become smaller, but this hasn’t stopped three of them taking on female directors for the first time.  Two of those have gone from no women, to two each.  So the overall picture on a like-for-like basis increases from 6 directors to 11.  Still not ‘hold the front page’ stuff, but moving in twelve months from just under 7% to nearly 12% certainly deserves recognition.  Two still however remain resolutely all male (I won’t name them, they know who they are.)  This is discouraging when Lord Davies’ 2011 Report pointed out that mixed boards consistently outperform their counterparts on ROCE, ROI, and most conventional measures of corporate success.  Whereas male-dominated boards create “ghettos of group think and excessive risk-taking”.  (Or at least that’s what one review claims).

Of course, many will say with some reason that the problem in our industry is the shortage of suitable women coming through to the top.  (According to the Cranfield University ‘Female FTSE Board Report’ 2012, most of those additions to boards – 161 as against 28 -  are non-executive directors, as I was when I first came into the industry in 1996.)  It starts with what WAMT (Women and Manual Trades) claim is only a 1.2% trade representation on site and continues at all levels above that.

A common argument you will hear is that women dislike the antisocial hours and uncongenial working conditions.  But so, if we’re honest, do men and I’ve known some fantastic women CM’s, PM’s and general managers.  And there are arguably even worse hours and grimmer working conditions for junior hospital doctors, where women have formed the majority intake since 1974.   (It did though take women 50 years to move from 1% to 2% of the medical profession, so maybe we aren’t doing so badly after all.)

Another view is that in a fundamental sense women aren’t attracted to the industry.  Whereas in my experience, women who do join find it the most exciting sector to be part of.   It’s more likely to be teachers or careers’ advisors who have an entirely outmoded view of what we have to offer.  Like the mother who had to be reassured recently that her daughter taking a civil engineering degree did not mean that she was going to become a brickie.  So it was fantastic to read during National Apprenticeship Week of two schools in Hull that took all their year 10 and 11 girls on site visits.  I also watched the excitement on the faces of 120 Sixth Form girls during International Women’s Day last year, listening to other women showing them the live construction projects they were working on around the world.

For whatever reasons however, we are still facing a situation where construction firms are only moving slowly towards appointing women at the most senior levels, though there are some outstanding candidates rising up the executive route in companies such as Wates or Arup.  Certainly, from what I saw when working in the US, ‘affirmative action’ quotas are not the answer.  Women should continue to be appointed because they are good effective board members; not because of their gender label.

In the meantime I can only commend to any remaining doubters BIS Secretary of State Vince Cable’s argument:

“Increasing female board representation is a win-win proposition. Well-balanced boards with broader experience introduce fresh perspectives and new ideas which help improve performance and boost productivity.”

Do we want to get better at what we do, or not?

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