Partner at SAMMAN, President at European Network for Women In Leadership, Board Member Focus Home Interactive
Chief Quality Officer and member of the Executive Board, Deloitte Netherlands
Women on Supervisory Boards: Why is this issue important? Who is affected?
In the Netherlands, supervisory boards have traditionally shown the same picture: white men in grey suits. Luckily this picture has been changing over the past five years. As the role of the supervisory board became more relevant and gained in-depth, awareness rose that the presence of diverse viewpoints within them is important in order to avoid “groupthink” and tunnel vision. Yet the tendency was still to appoint new supervisory board members from the “old boys network.” Forcing a breakthrough legislation was necessary. In the Netherlands, we now have so-called quota legislation, in which it is ruled that 1/3 of the supervisory boards will have to be comprised of women. As long as this quotum has not been reached, appointments of new male supervisory board members are invalid. The impact of this legislation on the supervisory boards is already being felt. A lot of listed companies now have at least 1/3 of women on their supervisory boards. The next important step will be that management boards also have the necessary diversity.
The issue of the representation of women in all facets of life goes to the heart of democratic values and governance. In my role as President of the European Network for Women in Leadership, I see the subject of the feminization of leadership and management under discussion all over Europe. Studies have shown that companies with higher levels of gender diversity outperform those with male-dominated management, and the larger goal—beyond women on supervisory boards—is for more women in executive roles generally.
Following Norway’s lead in 2006, eight EU countries have adopted mandatory gender quotas for listed companies, including France, Belgium, Italy and the Netherlands, with ten others having taken a more incentive-driven approach. In their search for female talent, male leadership is discovering that this talent exists! The visibility of successful women and a constellation of heterogenous role models contributes to the development of a pipeline of female talent and future female leaders.
This trend, however, is not irreversible, and we need to remain vigilant, especially in times of social and economic upheaval. Some companies appoint women to their boards to comply with the law but make sure that they have no real power or influence. Having the same few women sit on several supervisory boards rather than looking for other talent is also not uncommon.
What have you seen on the ground?
The NSE supervisory board has oversight over the NSE executive board. NSE is Deloitte’s European organization and consists of 28 geographies.
On our board, we have over 50% female representatives, all with different cultural backgrounds. We also have three independent non-executives on our supervisory board, which assures the objectivity of this board. We strive for a certain percentage of women and different cultures on this board and have open conversations about how to reach the targets. We have a strong focus on people and on the long term, and we keep in mind the impact our decisions will have on our legacy. We believe strongly that our diverse board provides the diversity of thought necessary for discussions and decisions of value, for both the short and long term.
My main takeaway is that inclusivity and diversity are a “must” for boards; we have to take firm steps and be open about dilemmas and our values. Whatever form of diversity we strive for, cultural diversity, gender diversity, ultimately, it is about diversity of thought. And we in our NSE board see the benefits of having diversity of thought: in decision making and in having meaningful discussions.
The Deloitte example is a great one and a best practice to communicate broadly.
I am currently a board member of Focus Interactive, a gaming company. The company clearly wants to work with their supervisory board members on business strategy. The other board members coming from the same world, my female colleague and I bring fresh air and new perspectives, she with a financial background, and I with my law and public affairs perspectives—gained from ten years at Microsoft as Legal and Corporate Affairs General Counsel, and subsequent work with a Law and Corporate Affairs firm.
- Don’t be shy, and forget the impostor syndrome: the knowledge and experience that makes you different from the other members might very well be the reason you were chosen. If the company leadership is not interested by your ideas or recommendations, they will simply not act on them—don’t take it personally.
- You are there to make/approve decisions engaging the company. Being assertive goes down well, provided you have a constructive approach. Feel free to ask questions and speak up, remind others of the rules and check compliance execution. You are protecting the company by doing so.
What’s coming next?
An important next step is moving from diversity to inclusion. The good news is that there will be more women on boards as a result of quota legislation. However, if the culture does not change and women do not feel safe enough to ask questions and express differing views, there is no inclusion and no benefit from having diverse points-of-view. The Chair of the supervisory board must create an atmosphere in which everybody can be open to ask questions and express views. At this moment, diversity is too often seen as just a check-the-box exercise. If boards look different but still act the same, there has been no real progress—the company will not benefit from diversity of thought. More action is needed to go from diversity to inclusion.
Global progress on gender equality is encouraging, but overall, progress is slow. It has therefore become even more important to take concrete action, appointing more women not only to supervisory boards but also to boards of directors. We should also challenge if 1/3 of women on boards is sufficient because then it still doesn’t give a balance in boards since you have a predominance of men, which obviously has its effect on discussions, decisions and also on inclusion.
Companies now have a diversity of profiles in their workforce, and management and leadership teams are more resilient and more successful as a result. The coming together of different skills and ideas helps align companies in the diverse societies they operate in and better understand their markets and customers. These types of factors, while well understood, are not always taken into account at the right level of management, and old reflexes and stereotypes are still alive and kicking.
Women are now equally, if not more, educated than men. Aside from the topic of women on supervisory boards, tackling the broader issue of women in leadership positions also addresses corporate governance and the need to recruit and retain female talent.
There is not one legal tradition in Europe but several. This results in huge differences between countries according to their cultures, histories and legal traditions. I believe it is necessary for the European Union to continue taking initiatives to align the policies of member states, levelling them up to the standards in the more advanced countries. The recent deal on the Directive on Women on Boards, which had been blocked for ten years, should make a big difference and will complement EU efforts to mainstream gender into wider policy-making processes, including, most recently, by making it a criterion for receiving EU Covid recovery funding.