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Elin Hurvenes is founder of the Professional Boards Forum. She spoke to Workingmums.co.uk about the vexed issue of how to get more women to the top of the career ladder.
Britain will be the focus for businesses and policymakers around the world if it manages to significantly increase the number of women on the boards of its top firms without having to resort to quotas, according to the founder of the Professional Boards Forum.
Elin Hurvenes says the latest figures from BoardWatch, the Professional Boards Forum´s monthly monitoring of women appointed to FTSE100/250 boards show women now represent 15.2% of board directors on top UK companies – up around three per cent in just one year:
Lord Davies’ review on women directors recommends a target of 25% women on FTSE 100 company boards be reached by 2015.
However, she said the biggest boost in numbers had come through an increase in women non-executive directors. Raising the number of “pipeline” directors was much more difficult. “It’s a completely different ball game,” she said. “The number of non-executive director seats on boards is much more limited. When it comes to the executive side different mechanisms need to be put in place within the corporate structure to enable more women to be promoted to board level.”
Elin Hurvenes founded the Professional Boards Forum in 2003 in response to the Norwegian “Quota Law” which
required company boards in Norway to have at least 40% women directors. There are now 42%. She set up the UK version in 2008 with business partner Jane Scott. It brings together chairmen and investors
and women capable of taking on roles as non-executive directors.
Elin said that in Norway the legislation on quotas was fierce. Companies could be shut down if they didn’t comply. “The quota legislation caused huge outcry in Norway, but it has succeeded where everything else failed. The progress in the UK is steady, but the jump from 15% to 25% is quite considerable. However, the progress since Lord Davies’ report has given it momentum. Lord Davies’ voluntary targets and eloquent words in public about the issue have really helped to raise awareness about it. Norway put the issue on the global agenda, but all eyes are on the UK now. If its method succeeds it will be the strongest argument against quotas.”
Those who oppose quotas in the UK say that, rather than imposing more women at board level, companies need to build a better pipeline of female talent coming through to senior management positions and being appointed to boards on merit.
Elin says building the pipeline is very important, but she adds that many women are already board-ready. “If they are not promoted to boards in the next few years what will they do? More training or more of what they are already doing? I have met a lot of very talented, ambitious ‘pipeline women’,” she said.
What they need, she added, is more leadership experience. She said that it’s not just companies that could do more to promote these women, though. The women themselves need to do more to get themselves noticed. “They need to raise their profile, tell people what they do and network. I have talked to enough women to know that some still want to be asked to join boards and think their record speaks for itself. I have read their cvs and it’s clear they have outstanding results and a strong cv. They think people will find them, but they will not.”
She added that some women also tend to highlight their weaknesses rather than promote their strength and lack confidence in their abilities.
Women who go for non-executive director positions, she said, also need to give a strong idea of what they will bring to a board.
She added that when she started the PBF her intention was to avoid putting women into a self-promotional position. “Women don’t tend to be very good at self-promotion,” she said. “They are better at task-focused activities. They are better at talking about values and about the accomplishments of others. I mentor women and I tell them to get together with other women and advocate for each other to help raise their profile.”
Elin said a key issue that holds women back in the UK is our attitude to parenting. “In Norway, couples become parents,” she says. “In the UK women become mothers. Dads at work are not so affected by having children. Women, though, tend to cut back their hours and turn down promotions. Having children is seen as a mother’s project. Women take the salary cut and the career hit and men just continue up the career ladder. Employers are not worried about hiring men in their 30s,” she said.
She added that it’s a tough choice for women since the childhood years go very fast, but in career terms it’s a huge chunk of time. She herself cut down on travel and turned down interesting projects when her daughter was young, but said she managed to keep a foot on the career ladder and created her own opportunities. “Sometimes women give up too soon,” she said, although she added that companies could more to help them given the strong business case for retaining women.
“Job descriptions tend to be written by and for men,” she said. “There may be little in them that is attractive to women.” Flexible working is also vital and women need to ask up front for it. “If they are being offered a promotion they are in a strong negotiating position. They could suggest flexible working for a trial period and ask for it to be reviewed. After all, if you don’t ask you don’t get.”