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Gender Equality in the Board Room – Lessons from Crisis Management

There has been much discussion recently about the lack of female directors on the boards of large companies.  Whilst corporate boards do not usually operate under the same time pressure as a Crisis Management Team (CMT), they do share a number of things in common, specifically: they deal with complex issues where there is no ‘right’ answer; their decisions attract significant media scrutiny; and the cost of poor decisions is extremely high.  Considering some lessons learned from observing CMTs might therefore make a useful contribution to the debate on board composition.

It is true to say that many of the worst performances that I have seen in Crisis Management exercises have come from CMTs that were entirely male.  However, I suspect that their poor performance was not a direct result of their y-chromosones; rather, I would argue that the problems stem from a lack of diversity in terms of education, professional background and experience of working in different environments.  The worst possible CMTs are those where everyone comes from similar functional backgrounds; have risen up through the similar educational routes; and have worked in the same organisation for many years.  These teams approach a crisis blinkered by a shared set of assumptions and are likely to fall prey to ‘Groupthink’.

Focusing purely on gender issues misses the point.  Indeed, if firms feel obliged to suddenly appoint female directors it may actually make boards less diverse in these important respects, as they seek out women who, other than their gender, fit the traditional stereotype of board members.  What is really needed is a campaign, backed up by solid evidence, to persuade companies of the benefits of achieving real diversity in their boards.