There are two issues at the core of the gender debate and boards: first the underlying issue of equality of women and our right to be treated with fairness and respect; the second is optimising the performance of boards as collective decision making bodies.
With regard to the first, it is extraordinary that in 2011 we are still having this debate but, if comments that I hear are anything to go on, it seems that we must! It is time to undertake some really deep analysis of some of the cultural assumptions about the gender in this country and expose attitudes that no longer serve us as a nation.
I regularly hear comments from both men and women, who are from outside Australia, who are struck by the strength of Australian male attitudes against women. Like all cultural conditioning, these things are hard to see from inside but I too was taken back at the vehemence of comments made during the DJs saga; and from surprising quarters. Time to get this stuff out in the open so we can name it for what it is: real resentment of women and by more men than some of us think. What causes it and how do we deal with it? I would like to see men leading the discussion for once.
The second issue, relates to the importance of having diverse perspectives at board level. The latest neuroscience says that gender preferences and thinking styles are in fact a spectrum not an either/or. It also has given us clear understanding into the differences in thinking that come from different positions along that spectrum.
On the female end there is a lot more white matter in the brain. White matter is the connective tissue that enables us to have 12 channels open at once, to pick up lots of different information from different sources: what is being said, body language, tone etc, and to multi task! It also means that the more female brain is able to join the dots between the bits and make connections, really important skills at board level and in business.
Those at the other, male end of the spectrum, have more grey matter which means that they focus on one thing at a time to the exclusion of other things going on around them. The issue at board level is that you need as much information and as many different perspectives as you can get because the whole aim of the exercise is to make the best decisions possible on behalf of the company.
It is fairly obvious that, as much as a group of like minded people is comfortable, it is unlikely to challenge thinking and thus to support the best decision making. The catch is that many people simply don’t want to be challenged in any way let alone to think about things differently. But this is at the essence of the role of the board and in a highly corporatised business and community environment we need the best boards we can get.
Both parts of the debate are really important but for different reasons. We need to be clear about them if we are going to make the changes that are essential for the debate to be resolved.