How to get more women onto FTSE 250 boards is an on-going debate that has, in my view, barely moved forward at all. The number of female representatives at this level remains incredibly low, with the most recent Cranfield report – The Female FTSE Board Report 2014 – stating that just 15.6% of current FTSE 250 positions are held by women – barely a 10% increase from 2011.
Part of the reason little progress has been made is the sheer misconception as to the true challenge we’re facing. It is not the case of a prevalent culture where women feel unable to progress, nor is it a lack of childcare support – we work in a highly flexible environment whereby professionals of all levels and both genders can work around their personal needs. Despite the latest revelations from Apple and Facebook about egg-freezing for female staff, a career break to have a family does not have to stop someone working their way up the ladder.
So what is really holding women back?
The answer is more subtle and nuanced – and is one around the language of business and how men and women communicate. The term ‘women are from Mars and men are from Venus’ is true in the sense that we each communicate and operate in a different manner. At the risk of over-simplifying the matter, in most (though not all) instances, females will focus on emotional intelligence in their management style and board-level communications. Males, in comparison, will often place much more emphasis on empirical evidence. While the shift in balance of the two is only slight, it is enough to create a barrier between the two audiences.
While both approaches have pros and cons, the simple truth is that for women operating in this manner in a room of male board members, too much focus on qualitative over quantitative measures will not work as effectively.
Indeed as Caroline Goyder, an actress and the Founder and Creator of The Gravitas Method, explains in both her book and many training sessions, women tend to connect with others, whereas men focus on a results-driven approach.
In order to move this challenge forward, then, I would argue that women need to be equipped with the ability to manage and communicate in a similar manner to the existing board in order to gain the credibility required to begin making changes. In effect, speaking to the other members in a style they can relate to will really build an individual’s credibility with the audience.
It is here that Goyder’s Gravitas Method really comes in to play.
How a sense of gravitas can aid the solution
The term ‘gravitas’ has been used in the past to describe a good leader, but what does it really mean? Put simply, an individual with gravitas portrays seriousness, solemnity and a sense of importance, all key attributes in a senior professional looking to gain an influential position on any management team.
So how can this help get more women into the boardroom? In the first instance, it will give professionals the requisite skills to gain the credibility they deserve with other senior peers. Secondly, it will help an individual adjust their mannerisms to suit different situations and audiences. Finally, this ability will put women on an equal playing field to their male counterparts.
Despite popular belief, we all have potential gravitas and it can be developed within any person. As long as we have the knowledge, passion and purpose behind what we do professionally, we can access our ‘inner’ gravitas. While it’s almost impossible to portray the entire method outlined by Goyder in one article, there are a few key tips she recently presented to us:
- Access your presence and calmness. If we look at leadership figures that are able to capture and engage an audience, they have an air of both presence and calmness. Take President Obama as an example. It’s vital that, no matter what is going on inside your body, your external behaviour remains composed in order to demonstrate to the audience that you are in control.
- Take time to be mindful and aware of the people around you. If you are a woman in a room full of men, be aware that you may need to adjust your method to suit this audience.
- Practice the ‘Fofboc’ effect. Or the ‘feet on the floor, bottom on the chair’ method. This simple visualisation technique requires you to focus on your physical presence. In moments of chaos, stress or confusion this helps to take you out of your head where you’re perhaps more stressed and takes you back into your body to give you the stillness and calmness required.
- Be aware of your body language. If, as already mentioned, men are status players, and you need to come across as one yourself. While what you say will demonstrate your knowledge and passion, you need to convey this belief in yourself from your body language.
- Make the most of your voice. We’ve all had those moments where fear takes over and our voice loses the confidence and meaning we might have hoped to portray. It’s important to practice speaking as well as projecting your voice. Goyder references the need to warm up your voice just as you would your muscles before any sporting activity in order to retain the attention of the audience.
The business world will not crack the gender imbalance issue through chasing the same solutions, and having the same debates over and over again. If these options were the right choices, we would have seen significant changes by now.
It’s time then to take a fresh look at the issue and perhaps open up some potentially controversial questions. Could the solution lie in somehow empowering women the gravitas to gain control in a male-dominated arena? As I’m sure you’re aware, my answer is yes, but what are your views?
Julia Meighan, Chief Executive of VMA Group