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Gender Equity In The Boardroom: We're Not Done Yet

Jennie Boden

Aug 25, 2023

Boards still have work to do to support their female directors and wider DEI&B efforts.

Gender politics, like all politics, can be polarizing. At the risk of taking a polarizing position, I can't ignore a string of recent encounters that prompt the question: Would that have happened if I (or she) were a man?

If you’ve read my posts before, you may know I regret that as a society we still need a publication entitled Advancing Women, but I’ve come to realize that it’s an imperative. If we don’t call out the subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) gender biased actions that minimize the voices of women, it’s akin to deferring to only the male perspective.

After observing a recent credit union board meeting, I watched with concern as a female board member walked out with her head hung low. Later, I spoke with her as a part of our formal assessment process. I learned then that the board chair—a man—had admonished her about her behavior in the meeting—behavior that hadn’t even registered a raised eyebrow with me (and I’ve conducted hundreds of meeting observations over the years and seen and heard plenty of eyebrow-raising behavior). It’s interesting to also note that a male director had spoken very rudely to a fellow board member in that same meeting, and I don’t believe he received feedback from the chair regarding his behavior.

While with another client, I witnessed a long list of follow-up and action items being delegated to the only female on the board, prompting a hearty round of laughs from her male colleagues.

I, too, have had my own experiences in this regard. For example, I have recently been challenged by men both about my presentation and facilitation style, correcting my cadence and tone. These conversations are impossible to imagine if I were male.

In these instances, I wondered: Would these men have acted in the same way toward us if we were men? The informal poll I’ve taken, among both men and women, resulted in a resounding “No.”

Don’t Let DEI&B Efforts Disappear

While gender is just one of the many elements of diversity, these three recent experiences tell me that a commitment to diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging remains vital. And even more so now, given that LinkedIn released a report last year that found the hiring of chief diversity officers dropped in 2022 after “experiencing significant growth in 2020 and 2021.” An article on the Society for Human Resource Management’s website referenced the LinkedIn study and quoted Amy Hull, director and head of DE&I at Paycor, a global leader in human capital. Hull “said the LinkedIn and Revelio data shows that the pledge to impact change was not followed by genuine effort.”

Even our own research at Quantum Governance suggests that our colleagues in the credit union space may not really value demographic diversity. One of our recent studies found that only 35% of credit union board members are women, compared to 51% of the total adult population in the United States. And when we asked those in the credit union community (board and supervisory/audit committee members, CEOs and members of senior management) what they valued most in their boardrooms, demographic diversity ranked sixth out of 13.

What’s of real interest, though, is that for two years running, Filene researchers Quinetta Roberson, Ph.D., and McKenzie Preston found that “creating governance and accountability systems” around DEI “are paramount to the development of a sustainable approach to DEI that activates real change and drives financial performance.”

In the previous year’s study, those same researchers also noted that “diversity may create advantages in terms of market growth, enhanced member experiences, risk management and increased strategic performance. Yet … it is not enough to simply have diversity.

Effective solutions for building and maintaining fair and inclusive work environments are needed to leverage the potential for DEI to achieve its performance objectives and develop sustained competitive advantage.”  And, I would add, to truly achieve change.

I will admit some people do need some coaching on their delivery, and I am always open to learning. Additionally, the board chair is certainly in a position to insist on civility in all manner of dialogue and address situations where it is lacking. However, it’s critical to apply “the rules” unilaterally—to provide a forum where every voice and perspective is heard and valued. 

Women serving on credit union boards are, like their male colleagues, professionals. They are not supporting members, taskmasters and coordinators. Their roles and responsibilities include the same level of strategic thinking, planning and inquiry as their male colleagues.

And before you give a woman subjective and stylistic advice on her self-expression, consider whether you would be so bold as to provide the same advice or subjective feedback to a man.

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