Madam Director, Madam Chair

“Let’s find a ‘win-win’ solution to the issue of diversity on public sector boards,” urged Judith Wedderburn, Director of the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung (FES), at the cozy Alhambra Inn in Kingston on Wednesday night (June 20, 2012).

I had the honor of joining a high-powered group of Jamaican women for a “Conversation,” a sharing of views and experiences on good governance and women on public sector boards. The meeting was organized by the 51% Coalition: Women in Partnership for Development and Empowerment through Equity, a recently formed alliance of women, women’s organizations and partners with the aim of “Promoting Gender Diversity in Leadership.”  The Women’s Resource and Outreach Centre (WROC) and the FES collaborated with the Coalition for the three-hour discussion. (Oh yes, why 51%, you may ask? Because statistically women make up 51% of the Jamaican population).

The gathering of about fifty women had one thing in common: They are all directors of various Jamaican government agencies – the Child Development Agency, the Housing Agency of Jamaica, the Rural Electrification Program, school boards, health boards, local government entities and so on. There were also two or three board chairs. One group from Mandeville was headed by Mayor Brenda Ramsay; another had traveled from Montego Bay. Some had only recently joined boards; others were more seasoned. There was “diversity and power in the room,” Ms. Wedderburn noted. They were at the Alhambra Inn not only to share and learn from each other, but also to discuss the benefits of, and guiding principles for women serving on public sector boards. They were also meeting to discuss the issue of good governance.  For example, what is expected of board members in general; and how should women in particular use board membership to their advantage, and to the advantage of other Jamaican women who are seeking leadership?

Sharing views at 51% Coalition
Sharing views: (l-r) Ms. Lisa Harrison, attorney and board member; Ms. Nadeen Spence, Young Women’s Leadership Initiative; Dr. Marcia Forbes, businesswoman, author and coalition member; and Dr. Rose Davies, senior lecturer at the University of the West Indies and board member in discussion.

Executive Director of the influential Private Sector Organisation of Jamaica (PSOJ) and the 51% Coalition Sandra Glasgow started us all thinking with her presentation on “Why Jamaican Public Sector Boards Need More Women.” A remarkable amount of research has been done on this topic already, she noted – including a revealing 2009 Ernst & Young report, “Groundbreakers,” and research by University of Michigan Professor Scott Page, Catalyst and others. In 2010 the global median  of women on private sector boards was a mere 12 per cent; in 2007 in Jamaica it was 16 per cent on private sector and 33 per cent on public sector boards. Since then the percentage on public boards has slipped to 31 per cent; but the process of appointments is still ongoing. And yes, politics is a factor; WROC’s Linnette Vassell asserted unequivocally that the method of selection of board members is “still too closely linked to the political process.”  Of 91 boards polled by the PSOJ, 70 were chaired by men.

These researchers – and many others – have determined that “a diverse group almost always outperforms homogenous boards” by a substantial margin. Michigan’s Professor Page adds,“Diversity IS strategy.” Boards with female members have a strategic advantage. There is a major push in Europe for more women on public and private boards, and some countries already use legislation to reinforce this – or are considering that option. But how and why does a gender-balanced board do better than one dominated by men, for example? “Female directors behave differently,” said Ms. Glasgow. Their behavior affects how the men behave; they set an example of conscientiousness. Women’s attendance records are better, and they prepare better for meetings (one should spend two to three hours studying board papers before a meeting). This keeps the men on their toes. As it stands now, women represent a vast, untapped resource; in these days of economic crisis, we should take the opportunity for a “rethink”  – women will help to strengthen the private or public sector body’s performance, and this has been proved time and again. Including women is simply good for business.

What else can women bring to the boardroom table? Women are instinctively more concerned for the interests of the under-privileged, as well as for other women and children. This is a part of the balance; don’t leave them out.

But what is the ideal gender balance? Some experts say the “critical mass, or tipping point” is three women on a board (but of course this depends on the size of the board). What the 51% Coalition is aiming for (and this is a generally accepted standard) is a 40%-60% balance on either side. A board comprising entirely of women (there is one in Jamaica, the National Council on Education) is not ideal. However, none of the women in the room served on a board with the 40- 60 balance. Some were the only woman on the board; most were in groups of two or three, but with some boards numbering up to nineteen. So, the balance was tipped heavily in favor of men.  Besides, women only get appointed to “certain types” of committees; many other committees are the preserve of the men.

Many women want to become directors, said Ms. Glasgow. She admitted, however, that she was “a little pessimistic” that more would be appointed – unless positive, concrete action is taken. A woman can become a change agent within the board, pushing for more women to join you; and women can – and should – publicly promote the principle of gender diversity on boards.

Sandra Glasgow
The PSOJ’s Sandra Glasgow makes a point.

Former Senator and a stalwart of Jamaica’s women’s movement and the Jamaica Women’s Political Caucus, Ms. Donna Scott-Mottley, opened up the floor for our illustrious group to share their experiences. Ms. Enith Williams, who had served on several boards in New York before returning to her native Jamaica, said that in her experience, male board members “always had an agenda, and used the board to achieve it.”  Women, she suggested, must “be clear about working collaboratively” as a board, not just in support of an individual’s personal projects and goals. This is another strength of a woman board member; they are often more inclusive and more concerned with the welfare and the contribution of the whole to the organization. After all, we were reminded, the shareholders in public sector entities are the Jamaican people. “We may have different views,” observed civil society activist and board member Yvonne McCalla Sobers, “but we should not have differing agendas.” Public sector boards should always keep in mind that they exist to serve the people. One woman complained of what she saw as the selfish and unethical behavior of her chairman. When she protested and refused to be one of his “yes men” (or woman, in this case) the chairman lectured her, both publicly and privately, for her impertinence. Financier Ms. Megan Deane advised her to make sure that board meeting records reflected her objections; she should also register her concerns with the Permanent Secretary or other superiors. On private sector boards, it was noted, men have used sexist comments and bad language. This is unacceptable; a protest should be recorded – and if the worst comes to the worst, the woman should consider her resignation. “Don’t be afraid to be a whistleblower” if necessary, commented one of our presenters.

Enith Williams
Ms. Enith Williams makes her point.

51% Coalition member Carol Narcisse reminded us, “How do we ensure that the public interest is served?”  How can we achieve this? We must keep in mind, as the PSOJ’s Greta Bogues stressed in her presentation, that “the whole is far greater than the individuals” on any board.  Ms. Bogues, who chairs the PSOJ’s Corporate Governance Committee, gave us a remarkably detailed and useful overview of “Core Tenets of Good Corporate Governance.”  This should be available on WROC’s website shortly; or if you ask me, I can email you a copy. It is invaluable.

And yet, when all is said and done, “Corporate governance is not a destination, it’s a journey,” in Ms. Bogues’ words. It is an imperfect process and needs to be worked on – a bit like democracy. As Carol Archer of the South East Regional Health Authority observed, “You can’t always achieve consensus,” but the men and women on public sector boards must always ask themselves how the public benefits from any decisions they make.

Bearing all of the above in mind, how can women support an increase in the number of women on public sector boards?  Well, the 51% Coalition has made progress in this regard; it has sent a list of 54 women it recommends for boards to selected ministers. The Jamaica Stock Exchange has supported its work with training and this list will be posted on the JSE’s website, as well as on the PSOJ and WROC websites. A meeting with Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller has been requested.

“I am not a feminist,” one young board member confided in me at the end of this highly stimulating event. “But I do believe in fairness and equity, we should all work towards that.”  Nuff said.

Personal note to self: I have the greatest admiration for all the women who were our guides through this conversation. They are not only dedicated, focused and highly intelligent – but they are all-embracing, inclusive, progressive, fair.  I am truly proud of the contribution these women have made over many years (and they don’t look a day older, by the way!) and it was an enormous pleasure to be in their presence and to interact with them.

Another note on the 51% Coalition: WROC chair Lorna Lee noted that it is “getting stronger and stronger every day,” and this meeting was strong evidence of this. I will write more on this important group – a natural progression from years of dynamic partnerships among Jamaican women – in a later blog post. Meanwhile, if you would like to contact the Coalition, you may call (876) 929-8873 or email 51percentcoalitionjm@gmail.com.

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Greta Bogues
Ms. Greta Bogues gave us a detailed account of the do’s and don’ts of corporate governance.

5 thoughts on “Madam Director, Madam Chair

  1. What a powerful event… where are you in those pixs? Also, I’m always amazed when women say I’m not a feminist as if it is a dirty word. Feminists do believe in fairness and equity, and that we should all work towards that. 🙂

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    1. Ummm… I don’t like being in pictures much, but someone did send me a nice one which I will post. I entirely agree with you about feminism – of course, I don’t really know what she had in mind when she mentioned “feminism” – as that is exactly what it is, I agree!

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    1. Thanks so much. Yes, it was powerful and I felt that this is an issue that, if a way forward is found, could really have a major impact in a small country such as ours. A positive impact!

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