Women Directors – Julie Meyer

Women directors must be worth it
Boards should hire females on merit, not because of quotas — the business world is hardly short of capable women!

“There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women,” was a favourite saying of Madeleine Albright, the former American secretary of state. I have always felt that if I can send the lift down to women who are coming up the ranks, I should. And I have. I spend a lot of time mentoring young women, speaking at women’s networking events and helping women with their businesses: I’ve backed three female entrepreneurs and promoted several women to director.
However, I am not a supporter of quotas for the number of women on company’s boards. The Davies report, published six months ago, called on leading companies to set out the percentage of women they would have on their boards by 2013 and 2015; the report recommended 25% by 2015. The deadline for companies to announce their targets expires next month. The changes Lord Davies would like to see are already happening in the real world: headhunters are on the alert and some 30% of recent appointments to boards have been women.
The business world is hardly short of capable women ready to join boards and make a valuable contribution. In the entrepreneurial world a large number of highly qualified women are running their own businesses.
There is Sara Murray, for instance, who founded Buddi, which makes personal tracking devices, and also set up the price comparison service that later became confused.com; or Lara Morgan, who built and sold Pacific Direct, which makes toiletries for hotels and airlines; or Natalie Massenet, chief executive of the fashion website Net-A-Porter, her own creation; or Laura Tenison, founder of Jojo Maman BéBé, the children’s clothing company. In the corporate world tremendous women have made their mark. Some examples are Sally Tennant, who runs Kleinwort Benson, or Johanna Waterous, who is on the board of Wm Morrison.
I sit on the boards of three companies. If I reflect on how I felt about my ability to contribute to the business world 20 years ago, when I was 25, I have to be honest — I lacked confidence.
It wasn’t until I started to have some business success in my thirties that the switch flipped in my brain and I started to exude “premium” instead of “discount”. Once my confidence started to build then a lot of positive things began to happen, including being approached by boards.
Had there been quotas 10 years ago, it’s possible that I might have been put on some shortlists and even selected to join various boards. Would that have been a good thing? I don’t believe so. I never felt in my mid-thirties that I was missing something because I wasn’t on the board of a big company. I was concentrating on making my own firm successful.
If I had been appointed to a board at 35 because of a quota, I’m not sure I would have been ready. Today I know I’m being approached because I understand entrepreneurial culture and I know how digital business models are transforming industries.
Boards are special places where sometimes you have to ask awkward questions diplomatically and raise issues that seem heretical. One of my companies was ignoring the smartphone market in early 2009 and I had to repeatedly focus the boss on a trend that ultimately gave his company wings. My ability to be firm yet empathetic and consistent yet a confidante has helped me in my board positions.
On a board your credibility and track record can’t be in question. If you’re there because of a quota, your voice will be neutered and your advice won’t be heard. Imposing women on boards will just reinforce men’s tendency to want to hang out with other men and not let the women get a word in edgewise — they’ll never believe that a woman on a quota is there on an equal footing.
If we need to give women a helping hand I can think of a simple way to do it. In my experience men start to “get it” when you make them focus on what they want for their daughters. I have met many a fiftysomething man who sees his 24-year-old daughter making her way in the business world and sees how hard it is for her to demonstrate her leadership.
The man is transformed and “gets religion” — becoming the most pro-woman man in the company.
I believe it is in these human connections that true leadership is forged. Do men need help sometimes in making that jump? Yes. Do women also need help sometimes in increasing their self-confidence? Yes. It should not just be successful women sending the lift down for women coming up the ranks. Let’s get men doing it, too. Will implementing quotas make the process faster, more painless or produce better results? Absolutely not.
Julie Meyer is chief executive of Ariadne Capital, the managing partner of the ACE Fund, and sits on the boards of Insead, Vestergaard Frandsen and Jellybook

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