TV & Radio
The Workplace: Boardrooms and a place for women
By Thomas Fuller International Herald Tribune
WEDNESDAY, AUGUST 24, 2005
PARIS The definition of sexism is prejudice or discrimination based on sex. But is there such a thing as good sexism?
The question came to mind after speaking with Christopher Clarke, the president of a headhunting company who says he believes that women make better executives, a view he has shared with audiences in Australia, Singapore, South America, the United States and his native country, Britain.
Clarke cites studies showing that women are better at performing many things at once, or multitasking, and that they have more sophisticated emotional intelligence, like being able to recognize another person's feelings more accurately than men.
"There's a lot of evidence that says that women are superior in evaluating people, in managing their ego, in calming aggression in others," Clarke said in an interview. "These are precisely the characteristics you need in a modern corporation."
As the president and chief executive of Boyden Global Executive Search, a company that placed 2,245 executives in the past 12 months, Clarke said companies seemed more interested in hiring top-level female executives, especially after the scandals at companies like Enron, Parmalat, Tyco and WorldCom. These companies might have avoided "aggressive types of behavior," Clarke said, if they had had more women as directors.
The most recent data from the Ethical Investment Research Service, based in Britain, show a small increase in the percentage of women on corporate boards, to 8.2 percent today from 7.1 percent in 2003, based on a survey of 1,600 companies worldwide. The sharpest increases have been in Scandinavia.
According to the same data, women today make up 27.5 percent of corporate board members in Norway. The United States has 13.3 percent female board members, Germany 8.4 percent, Britain 8.1 percent, France 6.7 percent, Singapore 6.3 percent, Hong Kong 5.2 percent, Italy 3 percent and Japan fewer than 1 percent.
The reasons for these low numbers are complex. One is that many women prefer to spend more time raising families. Women also shoulder a disproportionate part of managing domestic affairs in their relationships, perhaps best summed up by this bumper sticker spotted in Paris: "Behind every successful woman is herself."
Caroline Waters, the human resources director at BT, the British telecommunications company, says women are deterred from senior positions that require long workdays partly because they need to be able to balance family and corporate demands. "In many organizations, it is less acceptable to work flexibly at senior positions," Waters said.
Women are also put off by "closed and male-oriented culture," she said.
Clarke says it is in companies' interest to recruit more women into their boardrooms because more diversity means broader perspectives and "better decisions."
"The days of the dominant 800-pound gorilla steel magnates who built huge monopolies by roughriding over everybody are gone," he said.
Clarke published his views in the August newsletter of the National Association of Corporate Directors, a Washington-based nonprofit organization that promotes better governance on corporate boards. In the article, "The XX Factor in the Boardroom: Why Women Make Better Directors," he used sometimes crude evolutionary analogies to argue his point. Traditional corporate executives are like dominant male apes who have to collude with allies to cast rivals out of the troop, he wrote.
"As we share 98 percent of our genes with the great apes," Clarke wrote, "it is no surprise that in today's boardrooms we can observe much similar behavior."
How does he get away with generalizing female traits this way when seven months ago Lawrence Summers, the president of Harvard University, was criticized for wondering out loud whether women's biological makeup was linked to scientific aptitude? The difference is that Clarke is using biology to show where women excel, not the reverse.
Yet after listening to Clarke relate the corporate jungle to the animal kingdom, this thought comes to mind: Why do we need biological justifications for increasing female participation in corporate boardrooms? Surely companies should appoint more women to senior positions simply because it's the right thing to do.
Thomas Fuller can be reached at email@example.com.