Well done Anna, now let’s have quotas

This article was written by our Managing Director, Chrissi McCarthy MCIOB and can be found on the Construction Manager website.

Whilst the news of Anna Stewart’s appointment as CEO at Laing O’Rourke from April 2013 will not be wholly unexpected to anyone familiar with the company, it is certainly to be welcomed, writes Chrissi McCarthy MCIOB. 

Especially in the light of the statistics regarding women on FTSE 100 boards, which show that while numbers have increased from 12.5% in two years up to 17.4%, the majority of these have been non-executive appointments, with only a 1.2% rise in executive roles.

Some papers have taken the notion that Stewart’s appointment will bring equality to the construction sector, but we should not be blindsided by such simplistic views. Whilst I have every confidence that she will make a fantastic CEO, putting the weight of industry diversity on her shoulders might be a little too much for anyone to deliver.

We should rejoice that there is a woman in a prominent boardroom position with an industry background (she is MRICS) at executive level. While there are a number of women in non-exec positions, exec positions in SME businesses or exec positions in HR roles, there are very few role models for women working in construction within large organisations. Which is why, if I was still a site manager, I know where I would be sending my CV.

Back to boards and Maria Miller, the minister for women and equalities, has announced that she thinks the proposed 40% quotas from Brussels are “dreadful” – but here’s why we disagree,

Yes, the majority of people I know are concerned about talk of quotas for women on boards. There is a worry that they will water down skills, give a leg up to people who don’t deserve it, and undermine the achievements of those that have worked their way up on their own.

I can understand how people got to that conclusion but my experience has shown that logic to be a little backward. Here’s why. I sit on a few boards, and talk to other women who sit on a few more, and we have found the same thing. Quite often in meetings when we are the only women present we make a point and people nod and move on. Then five minutes later someone else raises exactly the same point, word for word, and it is applauded. Worse, it is then minuted as the idea of the person who repeated it.

Usually I’m happy enough that the point was being considered but there are times I feel it’s important that my contribution is seen as mine. When I have voiced this, I have been told I probably didn’t speak loud enough, or wasn’t forthright or confident in my opinion. Problem is, no matter how loud, confident, forthright or downright rude I am, the outcome doesn’t often change.

But that’s not really the point. What I find interesting is that it has never happened to me on a mixed board, and it has never happened to any of the other women I spoke to on a mixed board either. Not once; not even a little bit.

And it makes me wonder why this happens.

When I’m the only woman on a board or in a meeting I do sometimes get conscious of that fact and have been known to wonder if I’m there as a token, even when I know I’m not. So if I’m thinking that, and I know the reasons why I am there – what might the rest of the group be thinking? It’s not unreasonable that the thought might have crossed their minds.

One is not enough

It seems to me that whenever there is just one of someone, we look at what they represent, not who they are. One women will always be a woman in a group of 11 men no matter what her reasons for getting to that position in the first place. It’s all about numbers.

If you have three women, no matter how they got there, they stop being women and start being members of a board. Once we achieve a critical mass tokenism stops being an issue and we start to take the opinions of all board members seriously.

In layman’s terms, a woman on her own will be perceived as a quota even when she is not. Conversely, a group of women will not be seen a quota even when they are.

Before we make the mistake of putting this down to good/bad, sexist/non-sexist people, in my experience, this is a subconscious action carried out by considerate, personable and usually supportive individuals.

We cannot overestimate the extent to which we behave subconsciously, and until we get our heads around that notion it is likely that we will not appreciate the skills of women on boards, we will fail to see the benefit in appointing more and we will undermine the achievements of those who got there on their own merit by ignoring their contribution. Exactly the things we are worried that quotas might do.