Board diversity: why 'one and done'​ is worse than none at all by Terri Simpkin

Recently, I had the pleasure of delivering a workshop for the ICSA conference in London. 

As the premier conference event for company secretaries, board and governance professionals it was an opportunity to explore how inclusion and diversity in corporate governance, in all its guises, is being addressed. It was encouraging to realise that the issue of inclusion was not a discrete topic of discussion but one that permeated many of the issues under scrutiny.

Inclusion, as part of a serious corporate strategy, has long been a pressing matter for senior leadership and boards. While the business case for inclusion has been delivered time and time again, genuine broad-ranging results are slow in coming and often deliver a ‘one step forward, two steps back’ outcome. 

As part of her keynote, Denise Wilson OBE, Chief Executive of the Hampton-Alexander Review lamented the lingering spectre of the ‘one and done’ club – the 75 boards in the FTSE 350 that have only one woman on the board.

“The 33% target is a collective effort and it is incumbent on every FTSE 350 listed company to play their part - get with the new norm - today one woman at the table, is little different to none!”[1]

The impostor phenomenon is fuelled by 'one and done' approaches

My professional and academic work investigating the prevalence and impact of the impostor phenomenon, the feeling of intellectual phoniness often experienced by high achieving women, clearly illustrates that the ‘one and done’ approach to diversity is, indeed, worse than having no women at all. Here’s why. 

“I don’t belong here”

When ‘otherness’ is not only experienced by the individual but also clearly visible to others, impostor experiences are heightened. Being the ‘one and only’ confirms the erroneous, but pervasive narrative that ‘I don’t belong here’ and compounds possible feelings of inadequacy despite overt evidence to the contrary.

“Hello, I’m your token woman”

People who experience unwarranted but very real ‘impostor’ feelings and thoughts externalise their successes, attributing their achievements to luck, being in the right place at the right time or some other mechanism unrelated to their own capacities. Being the ‘one and only’ compounds the notion that they’re there to tick a box and as a token effort. Whether true or not, women who experience the impostor phenomenon are likely to be experiencing an internal battle to realise that they’re there because of their merits and value to the organisation rather than being there simply to remedy a diversity shortfall. 

“I can’t get a word in edgewise”

Speaking to women from all over the world as part of my research has illustrated time and time again that being the single woman on a board, or project team or even in their workplace means they must do battle to have their voice heard, have their input recognised and make their presence known. ‘One and done’ puts people in a position where they are already ‘other’ but are also on the ‘outer’ and for those experiencing the impostor phenomenon, this delivers professional, personal and cognitive strain to someone who is already likely to be struggling internally with the notion of being a legitimate player at the board level. 

It's time to bridge the 'knowledge-action' gulf

My empirical research and anecdotal evidence from conversations with the hundreds of (mostly) women who have attended my workshops over the past year or so is clearly indicating that the ‘one and done’ approach to board diversity (be it on gender or any other diversity criterion) is not only ineffective to get true inclusion at senior levels but it can put strain on an individual who will find confirmation in their ‘I don’t belong here’ narrative. One and done is simply not good enough on any measure.

"It is time to call out the 75 at 'One & Done' boards that are dragging overall progress downwards." [Hampton-Alexander Review 2019]

While we now have a better than 30% representation of women on FTSE 100 boards, there is a long way to go to fully embed the structures, behaviours and motivations in organisations to see broad-ranging inclusion at the upper echelons of corporate governance. The Hampton-Alexander Review clearly illustrates that there is a disconnect between knowledge that inclusion is a strategic and governance imperative and doing something effective to achieve it. Looking at how the impostor phenomenon is working to diminish the triad of personal, organisational and governance outcomes is key to gaining traction with inclusion initiatives at board level and within the talent pipeline. 

 "We now have to turn our attention to the practical measures needed to increase diversity in FTSE 350 CEOs and board Chairs. At the current rate, it will take until beyond 2035 to achieve even a third of women in chair roles." [Shriti Vadera]

My research has led me to develop Braver Stronger Smarter, an interlocking suite of activities that can help diminish barriers to inclusion in organisations and on boards. Find out more at www.braverstrongersmarter.com or contact me for a consultation about how I can help with fully customised, evidence-based approaches, DrTerriS@uptomischief.co.uk.

 

[1] https://ftsewomenleaders.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/11/HA-Review-Report-2018.pdf

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Dr Terri Simpkin is a recognised academic, researcher, consultant and expert in leadership and management in the second machine age. A successful business leader, she has worked internationally with governments, industry associations, large and small business and is an accomplished academic manager. She has managed university departments with a global remit and designed world-leading, cutting-edge Master’s programmes and corporate leadership development. She sits on global advisory panels for the Data Centre sector and is a sought-after public speaker. As a researcher, she is actively involved in global studies into the role of the impostor phenomenon as a barrier to career advancement, particularly for women.

Her research provides the Copyright Mischief Business Engineering, 2018 foundation for her consulting work through Mischief Business Engineering (Uk & Aust) and supports a full suite of programmes called Braver Stronger Smarter. Her academic work continues as the Higher and Further Education Principal with CNet Training. Terri is a Churchill Fellow, a Chartered member of the CIPD, a Trustee of the Baker Dearing Trust, Fellow of the Higher Education Academy and, in her spare time, a devoted Duran Duran fan.