In news breaking today leading UK companies have been reported as coming up with “pitiful” and “patronising” excuses as to why they don’t have more women on their executive boards. 

Excuses highlighted in the government-backed review ranged from claims that the issues covered in the boardroom are too complex for women (duh… I don’t think so) or the fact that a company had one woman in their boardroom and that meant they’d done enough – it’s someone else’s turn, they said! 

Well these comments are obviously sooo last century and need to be booted out pronto. But I did notice one comment that has a grain of truth in it: 

“Most women don’t want the hassle or pressure of sitting on a board” 

Obviously I’m not suggesting for a moment that women can’t handle hassle or pressure – we clearly deal with this in all aspects of our lives constantly. 

But how many women actually want to give up their family lives, their friends, their personal projects so they can work the 80-hour weeks required by many to achieve top executive status? 

Many men have a tendency to prioritise rising through the ranks, gaining high salaries and high status – it makes sense – high status is a big factor in helping men achieve biological success (aka sex), and so this tendency in men has passed through the generations. But we women often want different things from our work and our lives. On average, women have a tendency to prioritise putting their energy into jobs they find meaningful, or philanthropic, with an emphasis on people. Of course, there’s a whole spectrum of tendencies for each gender and plenty of overlap, meaning that a proportion of women (20% ish) will be more “masculine” in their outlook on work. 

These differences come down to our personalities. To a large extent personality is handed out at birth, but it’s also somewhat moulded by our experience and our peer relationships. It turns out that people high in the personality factor “Agreeableness” are more likely to take a hit to career success in order to prioritise their relationships with family and friends. And these people are statistically more likely to be women than men. 

Personality psychologists consistently find significantly higher “Agreeableness” scores in women than in men, and a high score in this factor indicates higher empathy, concern for others, emotional intelligence – all qualities that are highly desirable to have in a proportion of any organisation’s workforce. 

And companies are sitting up and taking notice, with a huge drive by many to increase the number of women in top jobs. But of course this isn’t just some attempt at benevolence towards women. It’s because having more women at a high level hugely and positively hits the bottom line. 

Here in Scotland there’s an initiative by the government to have a 50/50 gender split in boardrooms by 2020 and of course other governments are doing similar things. This is because more women at the top produces massive benefits to national economies. 

So what can organizations do to get more women into the boardroom? Basically they need to make the boardroom attractive to women. Make your workplace more conducive to women’s aspirations and more sympathetic to the constraints they have in their lives, and you’ll have more women stepping up. 

Just to give a few examples: 

Allow job shares, or part-time working at a senior level. This will mean that those who need or want to prioritise things outside of the work environment will be able to do so, while giving their organisation the benefits of their “agreeable” personalities. 

Flexibility. More of it. A 9-5 working day is an arbitrary concept – we don’t need to stick to it all the time. Working from home at least part of the time is often a viable and highly productive option. 

Then throw in some high-quality childcare on-site and we might be getting somewhere. 

These measures to some might seem radical, expensive, awkward perhaps. But if companies are serious about getting more women into senior positions – and they should be – they need to get serious about making this an option women want to take up. 


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