Women on boards: why joining a board could be the key to career success

Joining a board can have many benefits for your career, from boosting your confidence to meeting new contacts. Here, one woman explains why she did it – and outlines how you can take this career-enhancing step, too.

The idea started as a New Year’s resolution a few years ago. 

The note on my phone read: “Join a board this year”. I had a vague notion that it might be good for my journalism career. But at 28, I had no idea how to become a board member — or even whether I could. After all, the mental image I had of boardrooms being dominated by old white men is backed up by statistics: the average age of directors in the FTSE 150 is over 60, with only 8% coming from BME backgrounds. Just 27.5% are women. 

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A few months later, however, a vacancy caught my eye. A Manchester-based charity that empowers female workers in global supply chains was looking for new board members, and they were specifically looking for women at the beginning of their careers, with knowledge of social media. 

My inner critic threw up a whole bunch of reasons not to apply (I didn’t know anything about international development, for one), but I sent off an application anyway. I was invited for an interview and, to my surprise, I got the role. Bucking the trend, the charity’s board is all-female: I joined alongside four other women around my age and we were shown the ropes by three experienced trustees. 

Company boards are made up of non-executive directors (also called trustees or governors, depending on the type of organisation) and executive directors (who work for the company). They’re all registered to be legally and financially responsible for the company, and represent its stakeholders’ interests. 

women at meeting
Women on boards: “Joining a board has been a huge boost to my confidence.”

As trustees of Women Working Worldwide, we meet every six weeks to discuss and make decisions on things like fundraising, strategy, hiring new staff and any potential risks. I also help manage the charity’s communications plan – experience I was able to directly apply in my previous job as a press officer. The role has given me a deeper understanding of ethical trading and human rights, but what surprised me the most was how it taught me to speak up, to trust my instincts and expertise. It’s been a huge boost to my confidence.

The organisations have a lot to gain too: companies with more women on their executive teams are more likely to outperform on profitability. But right now there are more people called Dave or Steve heading up FTSE 100 companies than there are women and ethnic minorities.

In 2016 the government-backed Hampton-Alexander Review set (voluntary) targets for FTSE 350 company boards to be 33% female by 2020. Some progress has been made: all-male boards in the 350 have fallen from 152 in 2011, to five today. But almost one in four of the 350 companies still have only one woman on their board. 

 What’s more, in May last year the team behind the HA Review heard some pretty shocking explanations for the lack of diversity. Chairs and CEOS of FTSE 350 companies said things like: “I don’t think women fit comfortably into the board environment”, “All the ‘good’ women have already been snapped up” and “We have one woman already on the board, so we are done - it is someone else’s turn.”

Transparency is a big barrier to women entering the boardroom: the vast majority of companies don’t advertise their board vacancies. (Some public sector organisations are required to, and many charities do voluntarily.)

“What [directors] tend to do is meet somebody while they’re playing golf or at a sports club, and think, ‘they’d be good on our board’,” Fiona Hathorn, the managing director of Women on Boards, tells Stylist. Women on Boards is a global brand that provides information and support for women to take on board roles, as well as running events and providing vacancy listings on its website.

“Directors tend to start recruiting in their own circles,” Hathorn adds. “Most people are tapped over the shoulder. People are petrified of somebody they don’t know joining a board.”

Women on boards: Transparency is a big barrier to women entering the boardroom.

Another issue at play is that many women in their 20s think they aren’t qualified to apply, or even what goes on at the top of organisations, according to Hathorn. “We meet women who are really stuck in their careers,” she says. “They’re slightly bored. There’s no room for them to grow within the company, because the fat and happy lot, who are currently on the board or senior management, are not moving themselves. We tell them: many of you might be years away from being on a board at your own company but you’re not too young to be on a board outside of it.”

Hathorn adds that most bosses are happy for their staff to join outside boards, as long as you explain the benefits to your career, and emphasise that you can bring the skills and knowledge you learn back to the company. The time commitment varies hugely (it’s around 40 days a year for a FTSE company; 12 for the NHS; eight for a charity) but most of the meetings happen in the evenings. Some board roles are paid, including those in private companies, the public sector and the NHS. University, charity and school board roles are not.

Avni Mashru, 39, who works at PwC and is on the board of the Girls’ Day School Trust, is a keen advocate for the benefits of joining a board. “I think there’s still a perception that you need the experience level of the traditional ‘pale, male and stale’ individual to take up a board position,” she says. “In reality there are lots of opportunities to get involved in board-type positions, from small sports clubs all the way up to large companies.”

“If you meet anyone who’s been on a board, they’re different,” Hathorn adds. “They start interacting with people differently, they think about themselves in a different way. It’s just very empowering.” She also points out that it’s a great option for women who have been out of the workplace on career breaks or maternity leave to keep up their skills.

Carly Thompsett, 29, runs an online clothing business and is on the board of a charity that rescues and recycles mobility equipment. “To be honest, I stumbled into this role,” she tells me. “I hadn’t ever thought about being a trustee before, but to see how much it meant for the charity, and for me to be taken seriously as a businesswoman was empowering.”

“I feel I have learnt a lot from the role, making sure that all decisions put the needs of the beneficiaries first and safeguarding the assets. I have taken what I have learnt as a trustee and used them in my own business.”

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Hephzi Pemberton, who’s 33 and runs Equality Group, has been on four boards since she was 27, including NGOS and private companies. “On one of the first boards I sat on, there was another board member who clearly thought I was too young to be there. Whether he thought my gender was an issue as well, I never found out, but it certainly took me a while to gain his respect. In the beginning, he would often talk over me or interrupt my points.”

Pemberton ended up emailing her comments to the other directors ahead of the meetings, meaning that she got noticed and credited for her contributions: “over time I won the respect of all the board members”.

“Follow your passions in your search for a trustee or a board role,” she advises. “Research the charities and companies that are focusing on tackling [issues you care about] and reach out to them. More often than not they will be delighted to hear from a talented young woman who has proactively contacted them. Be yourself and be confident.”

Women on boards: How can I join a board?

Are you keen to get involved? Women on Boards collate publicly advertised positions as well as those they’ve heard about through their network, so start your search for a role there. You don’t necessarily need a background in a specific sector: companies might need your digital skills or HR knowledge.

This piece was first published in November 2019

Images: Getty, Unsplash

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