Posts Tagged ‘feminism’

Diversity – not just for Halloween

When I was in Norway last year, I took the opportunity to research the experience there of women on Boards – had the sky fallen in after all companies had to appoint at least 40% female Boards? (the quick answer is that nearly everyone in Norway thinks it was a non-event). There has been a flurry of research and articles recently, as other European countries consider following in Norway’s footsteps (so far Australia’s response has been restricted to requiring better reporting).

The most reported research has been this study (pdf) by Cranfield University on Gender Diversity on Boards: the Appointment Process and the role of Executive Search firms. The study was in two parts; a general review of the process of Board appointments, and then a specific set of interviews with headhunters to understand the appointment process from the key intermediaries in the process.

One of the first observations was that change in the pool of Directors appointed will come from changing the criteria – the brief given to the Executive Search firms. If you focus on experience, rather than skill set, you are going to appoint the same set of people who are already on boards:

So our next step is to say, what you’ve got to look at it’s not experience,  i.e. I want somebody who’s either been on the Board, or been on the executive committee of a large company, is I need someone who can make a contribution around the Board table. Using our competencies, it is about strategic input, about focus on results, around influencing style and skill, and integrity and independence. Those are sort of the four major areas we look at. And what we say is you can get those skills from people who haven’t been on the Board yet.

But there is also quite a lot in the study about the later parts of the process, including the interview process:

As you know, many interviews are ‘Oh, you worked at JP Morgan, do you know X? Oh, a lovely chap, he knows all these people I know’. So… but is he any good at the job? ‘Oh, we never got there. We never actually got to the meat of it’. […] Now, what you want people to do, when they go through a series of interviews, is to be asked the same questions, or at least cover the same issues. And that’s one of the weaknesses of a lot of interview processes, is that many people don’t know how to interview, and don’t know what to interview for. So our interviews are structured interviews based on behaviours, based on competencies. But if Board members don’t know how to do that, then they may come up with the wrong answer. So, actually, a lot of it is about training directors to look for the right things.

And right at the end of the process, when a fabulous woman has been found, the executive search firm also has to gee up the Chairman to appoint a woman:

The critical moment is often towards the end where there are two candidates, and the female candidate is maybe the less experienced one.  And it’s preventing the Chairman from losing his nerve when somebody else around the boardroom table may say, well I like them both, and Jim looks like a terrific chap, but look at his record, but she’s never sat on a FTSE Board before, she’s been on the Board of her own business. So there’s a danger of constant voices of conservatism, and actually part of the value that we add is just helping the Chairman say ‘No, remember what we’re after.’

This opinion piece from Allison Pearson in the Financial Times breaks down the research for those who don’t feel like reading an 80 page report:

A report this week by Cranfield School of Management bears out my theory. It says the appointment of women to FTSE 350-listed non-executive director roles is being held back by selection processes which “ultimately favour candidates with similar characteristics to existing board members”. Or penises, as they are more widely known. Chaps are more comfortable with other chaps. Only when a woman has been foisted on them and does a terrific job without crying or talking about Tampax do they start to see that we can be quite useful.

McKinsey has done the most definitive research on why this matters – performance of companies generally improves with greater gender diversity at senior levels. But the final word should go to this post from a Silicon Valley venture capitalist :

This is why I personally care about diversity: it’s the canary in the coal mine for meritocracy. When we see extremely skewed demographics, we have very good reason to suspect that something is wrong with our selection process, that it’s not actually as meritocratic as it could be. And I believe that is exactly what is happening in Silicon Valley.

There’s plenty of good research on the subject of team performance that shows that diverse teams outperform homogeneous teams on many different kinds of tasks. The problem is that this research doesn’t argue for demographic diversity, but rather for a diversity of perspectives. So, again, racial or gender diversity is not an end in itself. But we have to ask ourselves: if teams are consistently being put together with homogeneous demographics, what are the odds that they also will contain a diversity of perspectives? Shouldn’t we be worried that the same selection process that produces homogenous results in one area might be accidentally doing the same in the area that we care about (but that is harder to measure)?

Cross posted at Actuarial eye

Read Full Post »

Missing girls

Crossing the Nile to go to school - But how many girls live to go to school in Africa?

Last year I read a fascinating book, Unnatural Selection: Choosing Boys Over Girls, and the Consequences of a World Full of Men, by Mara Hvistendahl. She talks about the issue of missing women, how demographically, there should be more women than there are in many different countries of the world. The issue was the subject of an Economist cover nearly two years ago.

Tyler Cowen has alerted me to a fascinating paper on the subject, soberly entitled, Missing women: age and disease, by Siwan Anderson and Debraj Ray.

The authors, instead of doing a fairly high level comparison of ratios between men and women at birth, and men and women in the population as a whole, look at projections of the relative proportions of men and women given the same relative birth and death ratios between genders that happen in the first world. They readily point out that there are many different ways to work out what the “appropriate” relative birth and death rates are, but nevertheless they come up with some fascinating conclusions.

Our study of excess female deaths by age yields two key findings. First, once we control for natural variations in the sex ratio at birth, sub-Saharan Africa has as many missing women as India and China: significantly more as a percentage of the female population. Second, the majority of missing women are of adult age. Sub-Saharan Africa has no missing females at birth, while the corresponding proportion for India is under 11%. China’s missing females, in contrast, are largely prenatal. About 37–45% of them may be classified as missing at birth. But all these regions display missing women at a variety of ages. For instance, excess female mortality up to age 15 does not account for more than a third of the total in India or sub-Saharan Africa.

So the fascinating thing about this study for me is the complexity it adds to the story. While the standard story of why there are “missing women” is sex specific abortion and female infanticide, that is only really the explanation in China. In other countries, the story is much more complex, with relative female death rates much higher than males at a variety of ages, and in sub-Saharan Africa, particularly because of maternal death rates and deaths from HIV-AIDS.

Ultimately, the conclusion of the paper is not that different from the Economist’s attention grabbing “100 million missing women”. But the reasons are far more interesting.

We find approximately 20 million missing women in India, 58 million missing women in China, and 8 million missing women in sub-Saharan Africa. Look at the enormous difference between China and the other two regions (in flows all three regions were about the same). This comes from the fact that excess female deaths in China are clustered at age 0. We reiterate, though, that these estimates must be treated with a great deal of caution.

The missing women in India and sub-Saharan Africa are largely because a variety of causes (injury, suicide, various diseases) disproportionately kill the women there.  That’s a reason to worry, and potentially an easier issue to fix, if the will and the resources are available.


Cross posted at my new blog actuarial eye.

Read Full Post »

This is a departure from my usual Travelling Feminist post. But I’m in Norway, and Norway, in the 21st century, is proud of its position as one of the most equal countries (by gender roles) in the world.  Statistics Norway has a special gender equality index, and 40% of the parliament (the Storting) is female. Norway has gone further than most in one particular respect – they have legislated for approximately equal gender representation on listed Boards:

Companies are required to have at least 33% to 50% of each gender depending on the size of the board (see details in the document attached). The 40% requirement applies to boards of over 10 members. These percentages are for the shareholder representatives. And for those who wonder, yes, one company did have to search for a male board member to reach the target! (Source: Europeanpwn)

The process the Norwegians went through was two fold. In 2003 (when the percentage of women on listed company Boards was 9%), they introduced the concept, with a deadline of 2005, but no sanctions for non compliance. And then in 2006, they went further, and said that by 2008, those companies that were not complying would be delisted. And now Norway has more than 40% women on its listed Boards. The effect has trickled into non listed companies, as well, with the percentage of women there rising as well, to 17%. The change has been studied by a few different people.

The only quantitative study, by Amy Dittmar and Kenneth Ahern of the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan found that the companies with the smallest proportion of women at the beginning of the period of compulsion lost the most value compared with their peers – their hypothesis is that they were most likely to be forced to appoint unsuitable candidates. They found that female directors were significantly different from their male peers – they were better educated (more likely to have an MBA), younger (around 8 years on average) and less likely to have been a CEO. They also found that the proportion of listed companies out of Norway’s total seemed to have reduced (with a reduction in the number of listed companies, and an increase in the number of listed).

Although their study did try and correct for the possibility that the companies with more women on Boards at the beginning were better companies to start with (which is a reasonable hypothesis, given several studies showing statistically better performances from companies with more diversity at Executive level), by comparing with similar US and Scandinavian firms to see if the performance gap was similar, and by correcting for industry differences, it still seems to have relied fairly heavily on market capitalisation at a particular point in time (compared with net assets – the Tobin Q) as a measure of which companies performed, which makes me suspicious, given that the point was in the middle of the global financial crisis. The measurements were relative, rather than absolute, but the strongest argument that comes from this study for me, is that compulsion should be more gradually introduced.

Kate Sweetman spent some time interviewing directorsof Norwegian companies who went through the change. She interviewed men and women, all of whom were already directors, and almost all of whom opposed the change. Two years later, in a series of one-on-one interviews, every single person said that the boards were measurably improved with the addition of the women…some direct quotes:

* “If I had to generalize about the differences between men and women on boards? Women are more interested in getting the facts. Much more prepared; ask many more questions. Men tend to shoot from the hip.

* “What do women bring? We used to be a fraternity of men sitting on each others’ boards. The real issue is the fraternity of men. It is necessary to break up the in-breeding. It is unhealthy how the men protect each other. They are unwilling to go up against the CEO, for example.”

* “Think about the difference between an evening out with 3 of your girlfriends, or a guy and 3 of his guy friends, or two couple friends going out. It is always more interesting when the couples go out. Very different dynamics. The group dynamics totally change. More civilized. Less swearing, less jockeying for position. The problem with jockeying is that jockeying is about the individual’s position, not about the company.”

And Aagoth Storvik and Mari Teigen, both senior researchers at the Institute for Social Research in Oslo, released a study that argued that without both the compulsory quotas and the accompanying sanctions for non-compliance, it would be next to impossible to increase the number of female board members. This articlein Der Spiegel quotes from the study, and the researcher, pointing out that 7 years after the concept was introduced, nobody in Oslo is worried about it any more.

“But after the reform went into force almost nobody seemed to object, hardly anybody is writing about it in the newspapers any more or telling us about negative experiences.”

Australia, where the percentage of women on listed boards was 8% in 2010, recently went through a period of soul searching about this issue. The same arguments as were used in Norway (here outlined by Kate Sweetman) were used as to why quotas are a bad idea:

Quotas are wrong because they are about diversity and business is about meritocracy; quotas are simply a form of institutionalized reverse discrimination–what about the men?; government has no business interfering with the workings of business; quotas on boards flew in the face of shareholder rights; if qualified women existed, we would already have them on the boards; women don’t really want this anyway.

After several people publicly called for quotas, the proportion of women changed faster than it ever has – reaching 10% in less than a year. But 10% is still a long way from 40%. Should there be quotas? The Economist recently argued strongly that this was the wrong way to change the proportion. They ultimately viewed the financial study as more powerful than any other arguments. Although their piece made powerful points that women are consistently underestimated by men (based on a study by INSEAD) and that women are less likely to have a powerful mentor than men – often key to making it to the very top of a corporate, they seem to end up with the view that the main reason that women don’t make it to the top is that old saw – work life balance – they don’t just get the experience needed to get to the very top, and they don’t want to put in the hours.

But a much bigger obstacle to putting more women in boardrooms is that so many struggle to balance work and a family….Partly because it is so tricky to juggle kids and a career, many highly able women opt for jobs with predictable hours, such as human resources or accounting*. They also gravitate towards fields where their skills are less likely to become obsolete if they take a career break, which is perhaps one reason why nearly two-thirds of new American law graduates are female but only 18% of engineers.

I once would have agreed with them, being very cautious about the concept of quotas. Quotas can lead to adverse consequences in many different situations – just those that the Norwegian directors were fearful of. The thought of being regarded as the “token” – not there on merit, but because of a rule, is appalling. But the Norwegian experience suggests to me that it is not just a matter of lack of experience. Unless they are forced to, companies will fall back into comfortable habits when hiring people, particularly those, like board members, for whom it is difficult to define competence or success objectively.

Once more women are let into the boardroom, astonishingly enough, they add value just as they are. Quotas had the effect of forcing companies to hire women who were already capable of adding value to the companies that recruited them.  The last word should go to Hilde Tonne, an executive vice president and head of communications at Telenor, a global telecommunications company based in Oslo, from the NY Times:

“We have excluded women for 1,000 years,” she said, with a smile. “So we have already had quotas — it’s just that they were for men.”


* This is a minor point, but one that has to be made. Most articles you read about women on boards say that not enough women take the hard operational jobs – running an operational division, or being the CFO, rather than HR and marketing. Yet the Economist is talking about women going into easy jobs like accounting and suggesting that is why they aren’t Board members! Really, we can’t win.

Read Full Post »

Teresa Bandettini (Source: Wikipedia)

Teresa Bandettini was one of the most famous improvisatrici from early 19th century Italy. The italians had an equivalent of the poetry slam, in which members of the audience proposed themes, and the improvisatrici composed extemporaneous verse on the theme.

She was born in Lucca, in 1763, to a fairly poor family, and chose dancing as her way out of poverty. Her mother taught her to read, but when she realised that she was always distracted from her dancing lessons by reading and writing poetry, banned her from reading or writing for pleasure. Regardless, she kept writing poetry secretly at night, with pen and paper smuggled in from a friend at dancing school, and educated herself by reading the great italian poets, with the help of a friendly monk.

She debuted as a dancer at the age of sixteen, and was successful enough to dance in Florence, Bologna and Venice. She kept reading, and added Latin translation, by translating Ovid, and worked her way through the Divine Comedy of Dante. At this point, she started improvising poetry in public, and became known as the ballerina literate.

She increasingly became well known enough to be able to spend time with more well known poets and intellectuals of the era. At the age of 26, she married Pietro Landucci, a fellow Lucca native. He encouraged her to give up her dancing, and spend all her time her improvisation. She did so, and became known as the Improvvisatrice Commossa – the moving improvisor.  She travelled all over Italy giving performances, including one very famous series of performances in Rome, where she composed eight times on the same theme, each time with a different metre.

Many poets and artists dedicated works to her, including poems and paintings dedicated to immortalising her improvising. Paganini dedicated six sonatas to her, which were only discovered recently. She performed before Napoleon, and joined the court of the Bourbons at the Grand Duchy of Lucca in 1819, where she was granted an annuity, because they were so taken with her poetry.

She also wrote and published poetry, but tried to keep her improvisations from being published, even though her many fans (including the Grand Duke of Lucca) would have liked them to be, preferring to polish her public work.  She published many volumes of poetry, even so, so her total output was prodigious.

She had four children, three girls who died young, (one the subject of several very moving poems on the Death of a Daughter) and a son, and died aged 74, in Lucca, in 1837.


This is part of a serious of notable women from where we are as we travel the world. I’d love suggestions for future subjects – our itinerary is here.

Read Full Post »

When we visited Pompeii, the overwhelming impression was how similar life there was to life in a medium sized town today. Pompeii had around 25,000 people, and was an important port town for the southern Mediterranean Sea, with a lively trading life, as well as manufacturing for the nearby area.

So I went in search of information about the women, to see how they fared.

Eumachia of Pompeii was the daughter of a rich manufacturer – a brickmaker. She then married up, to a banker, which gave her more influence again. And the way in which to launder your social status in Roman times was religion – available to women as well as men. She became a priestess of the god of Venus, the patron of the Fullers (the Fullers laundered clothes using a set of processes starting with urine, and ending with fresh water), and thus the patron of this powerful guild also.

After an earthquake destroyed part of Pompeii in 62 AD (seventeen years before the eruption that buried it) she built a new building in the main square of Pompeii, probably the guild headquarters of the Fullers. The Fullers in turn, built a statue of her, with a complimentary inscription. Part of the motivation for the new headquarters was to help her son’s election campaign to the local council.

Sadly, along with a large proportion of the population of Pompeii, she was killed in the eruption of Vesuvius in AD 79, and never got to use the fabulous family tomb that she had prepared for herself (another way of showing off her wealth and power).

Generalising about women’s lives from the experience of one well off, influential woman would be a mistake. The overall impression, though, is that women in the Roman empire, particularly the upper classes, had a degree of freedom that they lost in the Dark and Middle Ages, and didn’t regain until the 20th century. Although overt representative political power was barred to them (they couldn’t be Senators) most other forms of economic and political activity were available, and somewhat accessible.

Eumachia availed herself of all these opportunities, and when she died, was an important part of the life of the Pompeii town. She exercised power both on her own behalf, and also on behalf of her son.

Read Full Post »