Why So Few Women: The Problem Is...

by Julie Graber | on 26 Sep 2016

I like to read anything by Carol Bacchi I can get my hands on.

Bacchi, a political scientist and feminist theorist, developed a public policy analysis tool that looks at how problems are defined within proposed or adopted public policies (“what’s the problem represented to be?” or WPR).

Bacchi argues that problems don’t exist outside of policies or in a vacuum, but that policies actually define problems in very specific ways. So if this is the policy, what does it say about how have we defined the problem?

I was reminded of one of Bacchi’s most recent journal articles when the latest in a long line of board education programs targeted at helping women get on corporate boards crossed my desk today. Bacchi’s article focused on health care, but it was the example at the beginning of her article that caught my attention.

“As a simple example,” she writes [of WPR analysis], “policies that promote training for women as a means to increase their numbers in positions of influence implicitly represent the problem to be women’s lack of training.”1

Here in the US, we continue to struggle with challenge of increasing the seats held by women on public company boards, and clearly, based on the number of board training programs targeting women, it appears that we believe part of the problem is the lack of training.

And organizations have responded - a Google search on “board training for women” generated 327 million results, with programs from women’s leadership organizations, academic institutions and governance organizations among the most popular hits.

In contrast, “board training for men” generated only 135 million results, and interestingly, the top hits were for balance board training, exercises for paddle boarding, Indo boarding, and board shorts rash guards. Even with more specificity, “corporate board training for men,” the results were primarily how to get more women on corporate boards (How Smart Girls Get on Corporate Boards, Women on Boards: A Conversation with Male Directors, etc.) and how men might play a role.

So it begs the question: if the problem is lack of training, and the universe has responded with programs dating back a decade or more, why has the number of board seats held by women barely budged? And why hasn’t the lack of director training for men kept men from being appointed to these same boards?

Board training programs may help women be better board members (an important factor to consider given that women are often held to a higher standard and need to hit the ground running at their very first board meeting), but they clearly aren’t enough. And with the hefty price tags associated with many of these programs, it should be clear what these programs will (and won’t) deliver.

Breaking into the “old-boys” network and overcoming gender bias continue to be significant barriers for women hoping to serve on a corporate board. And not all of that bias is “implicit” or “unconscious.” As the Australian Institute of Corporate Directors found out when they asked ASX companies why they still have no women on their board, the responses included: “women talk too much and make the board meetings too long,” “women aren’t reliable enough to be long-term board members,” and (my favorite) “we don’t have to and we don’t want to.” article link

Two recommendations:

If a woman you know is considering a board training program, suggest they find one that includes a mentor/sponsor or placement component that will connect them with current board members and board influencers (and not just with other women having the same problem of breaking in).

And if you know someone who’s thinking about starting a board training program, encourage them to create one that engages men and helps them understand the structural barriers and biases that keep boards from tapping a significant portion of the talent pool.

Surely 2016 is time to pull the “no girls allowed” sign off the door to the boardroom.

  1. Problematizations in Health Policy: Questioning How “Problems” Are Constituted in Policies, SAGE Open April-June 2016: 1–16 2016 DOI: 10.1177/2158244016653986 sgo.sagepub.com; retrieved on September 20, 2016 here