The old boys club is alive and well

It´s been a fairly exciting few weeks in the world of boardroom sexism. Firstly, the UK Government Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy released a list of quotes collected during the production of the Hampton-Alexander review entitled as “The worst explanations for not appointing women to FTSE company boards”. These included such gems as “I don’t think women fit comfortably into the board environment” and “We have one woman already on the board, so we are done – it is someone else’s turn”. The quotes are anonymous. Secondly, Akbar Al Baker, the chief executive of Qatar Airways, who has now also been appointed as the Chairman of IATA (International Air Transport Association), said of his job as head of Qatar Airways: “Of course it has to be led by a man, because it is a very challenging position.” It is worth noting that of 31 IATA board members, only 2 are currently women.

Hmm. It´s hard to know where to begin. I´ve blogged before (“How could we have been so stupid?”) on the importance of diversity and inclusivity in decision making and I´ve also highlighted the risks (“Carillion, and on, and on”) of the disaster that can befall organizations that fail to learn this lesson. So perhaps let´s start with Mr Al Baker´s assertion that his job has to be done by a man: “because it´s a very challenging position”.

It´s true that there have not been any woman leaders of Qatar Airways to date. However, there have been female leaders in the airline industry. From 2010 to 2017 Dame Carolyn McCall was the Chief Executive of Easyjet. In her tenure, Easyjet shares quadrupled in value. Dame Carolyn has been honoured in many ways. As well as being appointed a Dame Commander of the order of the British Empire for services to the aviation industry, she has a Legion d’honneur from France and has been described in the business press as “the most wanted boss in Britain”. She is lauded, far and wide, as a very talented business leader.

Examining the performance of Qatar Airways during the tenure of Mr Al Baker is a little harder. In April Mr Al Baker said the carrier made a “substantial loss” in 2017, but he did not disclose the figure. In previous years, the company had claimed a profit, but, as Forbes states: “such claims are misleading and should not have been repeated by media outlets without strong disclaimers.” Qatar Airways, due to their state ownership, choose the figures they want to release – this is not quite the same thing as full financial transparency. Reporting a loss (if indeed, Qatar Airways actually do so in 2018) probably represents a step forward in terms of telling the full story, but none of this helps us assess Mr Al Baker´s performance as a chief executive. So could Mr Al Baker´s job be done by a woman? Say, Carolyn McCall? Well, I think she might struggle a little with how Qatar Airways reports financial information, and I guess she would be more unhappy with making a “substantial loss” than Mr Al Baker seems to be. So I do most certainly agree that Carolyn McCall could not do the job in the way Mr Al Baker does it. However, if I was making the appointment and had to choose between the two of them, well, let´s put it this way, I would go for the one with the clear track record of success, rather than the more opaque version demonstrated by the male contender.

Carolyn McCall left Easyjet in 2017 – she is now CEO of ITV. It´s a good job and it´s very different to the airline business. It would seem a not unreasonable assertion that Carolyn McCall has been sought for many high-level roles – and after 7 highly successful years at Easyjet I´m sure she could have stayed in the airline business if she had wanted to. However, she chose to leave, and perhaps the male dominated IATA board was one of the reasons why. It´s not a hard lesson to learn – organizations that do diversity and inclusivity properly make better decisions – but the airline industry seems to be struggling with it. Businesses that make better decisions make more money. It is no secret, and nor do I believe it is any coincidence, that the old boys club that is the airline industry is a notoriously poor financial performer.

So now let´s deal with the two quotes I started this article with:

  • I don’t think women fit comfortably into the board environment

This is “old boys club” speak of the worst sort and is bad for business – fact. The research shows that to make better decisions you need people from diverse backgrounds: by gender, age and geography, to be properly included in the decision making process. Yes, it is important that they have some common purpose and be capable of engaging with each other in challenging but constructive ways. However, this is not the same thing as “fit comfortably into the board environment” with its implication of shared membership of the same old tired institutions, such as public schools, Oxbridge colleges, gentleman´s clubs and so on.

  • We have one woman already on the board, so we are done – it is someone else’s turn

This is blatant tokenism. We´ve got our tame diverse representative, who is paid to agree with us, so we are done and can carry on as before. This is diversity (albeit minor) without inclusivity – the diverse elements are just there to make up the numbers. Again, the research results are clear. Organizations that indulge in tokenism actually make worse decisions than those that are not diverse, which in turn make decisions that are worse than those organizations that are diverse and inclusive.

For those that want to see most recent version of this research find it here.

For those organizations, like IATA, still stuck in this 1970s spiral of sexism and poor performance I can only suggest that they look at what efforts they are making to attract and retain talented women into their industry. This should include getting rid of those board members who feel comfortable spouting the type of nonsense listed by the Department of Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy. Perhaps then, we can have an intelligent conversation about increasing the ability of our organizations to make good decisions.

It´s time to make the old boys club ancient history.

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