A couple of the Bread Angels have tried to get work experience in bakeries which is fantastic. One of them, in South Africa, was turned down because she was a woman. The job was too hard for women. Women did not bake well when they were menstruating (seriously). Women did not bake well at all. Initially I thought this was some weird, South African, throw back to the 1600s attitude until a woman in England had the same response to her offer to help out in a bakery. Baking is a gender issue, it seems, for some. But not most for most people and certainly not for us here at VB.
Given that VB is a start-up and I am an entrepreneur – and a successful one in my own eyes at least – entrepreneurialism is not a gender issue either. In fact, women make up a significant proportion of entrepreneurs. Many find they cannot re-enter the work place after having children and others find they cannot fit into a male orientated corporate culture. Still others just want to work for themselves because they (like me) think it will be fun and rewarding. So, entrepreneurialism is not a gender issue either. I am actually a bit bored with discussions about gender issues. I absolutely see that there are gender differences and many gender issues out there, I just don’t think baking or entrepreneurialism are areas where there are any. Nor do I think risk taking is a gender issue.
Right now, Women’s Hour is bleating on about whether “risk averse women” on bank boards would lower their risk appetites. Yawn. I take exception to this on so many levels:
1. It presumes that women are not risk takers.
2. It intimates that the main purpose of having more women on bank boards would be to minimise risk taking behaviour rather than anything else.
3. It implies that all men are risk takers.
4. It ignores the fact that the different roles of the different people on boards should be carefully balanced so as to have a mix of skills, aptitudes, and attitudes to many things – including and not limited to risk taking.
One of the keys to a high performing board includes having built a high performing team that is capable of managing the conflict that is inevitable when a group of talented individuals comes together to do a difficult job. Board members have to be talented, they have to be individual, and they have to be a team. Group think is one of the things that leads boards to make bad decisions. Bullying is the other. If a board is not a team of individuals it risks group think, among other things. Witness Barclays under Diamond. If a board is not a team at all it risks being the victim of bullying, among other things. Witness RBS under Goodwin.
Gender is not the issue here. Board member selection, on-boarding, and performance is. This is not a new topic. The same people (be they men or women) sit on the same boards and the same things happen over and over again. We know what the answer is – selecting individuals and building teams. The pool from which board members are selected is not broad enough for sure, but even if it was, that is no guarantee of a high performance board. Teams have to be built and this takes time and commitment to both oneself as a board member and to the other individuals on the board. It takes critical self-reflection and this is hard, scary and thus frequently avoided. Boards members are typically so busy “doing stuff” or being seen to do stuff that they do not consider how that stuff is done. Bad decisions get made. Decisions get made and over turned. Decisions get made and not implemented. Decisions don’t get made at all. Sound familiar where you work?
Risk taking, entrepreneurialism, baking – these are not gender issues. Men and women do both well or badly according to their individual natures, talents, and abilities. If we want better boards we have to seek the right people who balance one another and will work on being able to work together. Not just more women or fewer risk takers. That is as boring a solution as bread without salt.