Written by Dotty Winters

Voices

Boardroom farce

Ever fancied serving as a board member? Veteran boardroom frequenter Dotty Winters explains why it’s not just an excellent way for women to gain new skills; it’s a means of battling gender inequality.

Claire Jones Board Member

Illustration by Claire Jones.

There are more men called John running major UK companies than there are women in similar positions. The Guardian recently revealed that the list of chief executives and chairs of FTSE 100 companies includes 17 men called John (or Jean) – outnumbering the seven female bosses listed. Men called David or Dave also outnumber women, by 2:1.

So what are we going to do about this? What are you, excellent reader, going to do about this? When did you last apply to be on a board?

I’m guessing not many of us are likely to be appointed to the board of a FTSE 100 company in the next week or so, but gender disparity remains an issue across the spectrum of board memberships. And yet there is a huge range of ways in which you can get yourself into a boardroom.

“Many of you will have driven cars, grown your own children or bought houses, so I know you have what it takes to go ahead.”

I’ve served as a board member on a number of organisations for the last 10 years. It’s been one of the most rewarding roles I’ve ever held, and has allowed me to be part of something that makes a real and tangible difference to people’s lives. I’ve gained invaluable skills, met amazing people and had the chance to explore a completely new sector.

I’ve been fortunate to work with some great women on boards, but there are definitely not enough of us. I’d love you to stop waiting for there to be more women on boards and start being a woman on a board.

Getting Started

First up I should tell you that being a board member can be a tiny bit scary. You’ll be responsible for the organisation, the place where bucks stop and investigations end. Many of you will have driven cars, grown your own children or bought houses, so I know you have what it takes to assess risks and decide to go ahead.

Some board positions are paid and there are many more board roles with charities and non-profit organisations that are voluntary (although most will pay expenses so you aren’t out of pocket). Often people who would like to be paid as a board member begin in voluntary roles while continuing to build their skills. Contacting your local Community and Voluntary Sector Organisation (CVS) is a great place to start. They will almost certainly have a list of charities that are looking for trustees, or other available board roles.

What you’ll need to know

The main skills you’ll need in order to serve on a board are governance skills. Governance is one of those words that someone made up to make things more confusing than they need to be. As the board will usually be in charge of the organisation, board members need to be really good at listening and asking questions. You’ll need to:

• Understand what the organisation is for, so that you can ensure that the decisions that are made are moving the organisation in the right direction and protecting its reputation, aims and assets. If you’ve ever screamed at your family while they fight over Monopoly on Christmas Day, reminding them that this is not what the Baby Jesus wanted, then you probably already have this skill.

• Remain strategic. Your job is to steer the ship, not row it. You need to keep a good view on where you’re heading, and look out for shark infested water rather than getting bogged down in whose turn it is to swab the decks. (Enough boating analogies?)

“Governance is one of those words that someone made up to make things more confusing than they need to be.”

• Gain assurance. Your job is to ask a lot of questions. You need to be sure that things are running as they should be. You can’t do this by being there every minute and knowing everything, so you need to get great at asking the right things. Board membership is not for the faint-hearted; you need to be willing to challenge things while maintaining great relationships with the rest of the board and the senior team in the organisation.

• Read. Usually you’ll be sent reports to read in advance of a board meeting. Read them, otherwise you’ll look like a total numpty. If you’ve read this far, you’re probably qualified.

• Understand finance. This is a big barrier for a lot of people. Board members need to look at financial reports. You don’t need to be good at maths to do this; you just need to learn what reports look like. A few hours spent with Reading Financial Reports for Dummies will actually set you in pretty good stead for this. The main thing you’ll need to do is get used to what the finances usually look like for your organisation, what they should look like, and anything which seems to be different, changing or concerning. These are similar to the skills I use to assess whether cheese of indeterminate vintage is actually edible.

It’s great to have an understanding of the skills you need, but also worth noting that many organisations will also provide training to their board members to improve and build their skills. The time commitment required varies, as do the days and times that organisations meet. Remember that you’ll also need time to read documents and emails in between meetings. A lot of organisations meet outside the usual working day so that they can attract board members who work 9-6.

You might be surprised at how applicable your skills are in the boardroom, and the difference you can make. Being a board member can be maddeningly frustrating and incredibly rewarding, but it’s definitely not just a job for the boys. Putting yourself forward to serve on a board is one small step for womankind.

@DottyWinters

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Written by Dotty Winters

Nascent stand-up, fan of fancy words, purveyor of occasional wrongness, haphazard but enthusiastic parent, science-fan, apprentice-feminist.