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Mirella Visser (Presidente europea Pwn)

“The message is clear: appointing women to the top leads to better business results so companies should include this in their business strategy. It is not about equal representation as a right or ideal, it is about creating more sustainable businesses and using all talents available”.  Così Mirella Visser, presidente europeo di Pwn (Porfessional Women Network) parla del valore e del ruolo delle donne nell’ambito professionale e sottolinea come la scarsa rappresentanza femminile nei Cda non derivi dalla mancanza di persone “del gentil sesso” preparate e qualificate. Una chiacchierata molto interessante. Vi segnalo che Pwn è un network europeo molto attivo, che offre sempre spunti interessanti come il BoardWomen Monitor: un “censimento” a livello globale della percentuale di donne presenti in posizioni apicali, con numeri ma anche con  considerazioni e confronti Paese per Paese (vedi il post dell'ottobre scorso) . Vi consiglio di visitare il loro sito dove troverete molti spunti di riflessione. Il network è presente anche in Italia, grazie al lavoro di Monica Pesce (vedi il post di febbraio) ed ha progetti interessanti, come la collaborazione con importanti gruppi di selezione di personale qualificato (Eric Salmon & Partners, Heidrick & Struggles, Key2people, Korn Ferry) e con la Sda Bocconi per identificare un gruppo di donne “pronte per la stanza dei bottoni”. 

D: Is recession making things worse for women? Some statistical research points out that women are the first victims because they have more often temporary and low-qualified positions compared to men. But it could also be an opportunity to change a one-way model of labour organisation (long-hours working, permanent presence in the office, cameraderie)…

R: The impact of the recession on women  in the labour market is not the same for everyone everywhere. In some countries the health care sector largely depends on women and will not suffer the consequences like in the corporate sector; same holds true for government institutions where women are often represented quite well, compared to the industry. Those sectors will suffer less from the crisis because governments will continue or even increase investments in those sectors. However, industries like construction, steel, building, automotive are already seriously affected in many countries; those industries traditionally count more men than women in the workforce. So it really depends on which sector you take to see the impact on women. Looking at the corporate sector, where women are not in the key positions yet, I expect more women will be negatively affected than men. For a number of reasons: women are overrepresented in the ‘overhead’ or supporting roles; when cost-cutting measures are taken, those functions are often top of the list. In addition, women are less part of the formal and informal decision-making structures within companies and are therefore less influential in safeguarding their own future. Another effect we have seen in take overs of companies is that women are more inclined to accept a severance pay package because they want to continue to focus on their job and not on the organizational politics that may be needed to secure their future in the company. Last, but not least, more women than men work parttime. In times of crisis working parttime might suddenly lead to (renewed) questions about commitment and ambition; if employers need to downsize, they might choose to keep fulltime workers who have to support a family, as opposed to part time workers. 

D:  There Is a number of research that prove how a higher women presence in the board is related to a better scoring in corporate performances. What is your opinion on this issue?

R: The research is very important as it provides data for the discussion about the business case: do companies with more women on board outperform those without? Although the research (like McKinsey, Catalyst) does not prove a causal relationship, it is significant that all these studies point into the same direction. So for me as a business women the message is clear: appointing women to the top leads to better business results so companies should include this in their business strategy. It is not about equal representation as a right or ideal, it is about creating more sustainable businesses and using all talents available.

D: Are you pro or again  “quotas”? There is a project in Italy to put quotas to grant a minimum presence of women in the board of listed companies. Is it a “necessary corrective” to a unbalanced situation or there is a risk to be misunderstood and to look at as a “minority” to protect?

R: The discussion about quotas is a difficult one as you can’t generalize. Quotas are not the ideal solution for all problems in all countries. Quotas were successfully introduced in Norway twenty years ago, for senior positions in governmental institutions. It worked very well and nowadays at least 40% of the senior positions are taken by women. This is a very important message to society: women as role models in top positions. In addition, the Norwegian society has adapted to children having two working parents by establishing a detailed infrastructure enabling and not complicating (like in many European countries) work-life balance.  As corporations did not follow suit, the minister of economic affairs introduced the law that board seats of listed companies should include at least 40% women and 40% men. Despite initial protests it worked. Our EuropeanPWN BoardWomen Monitor 2008 showed that already 44% of the board seats are taken by women. However, the preparation time to get to this point in Norway was long and there was a special program designed to identify and train qualified women to take on the board positions. It was a joint effort by government, employers federation and companies. The Norwegian success story teaches me that a number of basic conditions should be met before government should impose quota on corporations. First condition is that government sets the example and appoints women in top positions. In many European countries this is not the case. Second, the infrastructure needs to be built, enabling families to combine work and life in a healthy way. Thirdly, initiatives to identify and train women are needed to uncover the pool of talent out there. Many women are qualified but do not even realize it, or have never thought of having the ambition to be appointed. So women’s networks need to address the topic and support women with the  tools and the networks to develop their leadership potential. There is so much potential out there, we just need to organize and access it. 

D: The most popular excuse is: there are not enough qualified women available. How to prove this is false? Maybe women, as Emma Bonino said recently, have interiorized this famous “gender gap” and have created a self-censorship?

R: Like I said before: there are many qualified women that never even considered going for a board position. It may partly be self-censorship, driven by society; after all, if you don’t see successful role models why would you think you could make it? It also has to do with the fact that women often do not have a realistic picture of what it takes to be at the top. They see the negatives, like long working hours, lack of sleep, but not the positives, like developing your true potential, being influential in creating the culture you like, having a sense of accomplishment etc.