Are Female Board Members A Boost To Companies?

A recent survey shows that 25 percent of U.S. corporate board members are women. Some people, even a recent book, argue that more women on boards means better-run companies and more profits. Lucy Kellaway, a columnist for the Financial Times in London, talks with Renee Montagne about whether that idea is true.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Corporate boards are becoming a bit more coed. A recent survey showed that 25 percent of U.S. corporate board members are women. Some people argue that more women on a board can mean a better-run company, and we put that theory to Lucy Kellaway. She's a columnist for the Financial Times in London. And, by the way, she also serves on the board of a car insurance company, and I began by asking her what that was like.

Ms. LUCY KELLAWAY (Columnist, Financial Times, London): It is fascinating for me as a journalist to do that because I've been writing about management and workplace issues purely as a hack, sitting at my desk. But to get on the other side of the fence and see how they really do it has been quite terrific.

MONTAGNE: You know, one thing that has been written about - and I'm curious what you think about it - and that is that women somehow would lead to better governance of companies and therefore lead to more profits.

Ms. KELLAWAY: Yes.

MONTAGNE: What do you think?

Ms. KELLAWAY: Yes. There is a lot. And increasingly, the women's lobby are forcing these stats at us and saying, it's now proven. I think these statistics are really dodgy, and I think we should fight shy of them. So as soon as a woman starts saying to me we know women mean better governance, I think you are talking through your hat. You have no proof of that at all. But from that, it doesn't mean to say that women shouldn't be on boards. I think women should be because we're half the, you know, population. But I think, one needs to be very careful about making claims like that at all.

MONTAGNE: Well, are there any claims that can be made either positive - or, I guess, negative, too - about more women on corporate boards? Or it's just like, it doesn't matter?

Ms. KELLAWAY: Yeah. Well, I mean, interestingly, I've asked my fellow directors what they thought, and they did all say that we tended to approach issues slightly less aggressively and cut down a bit on the sort of, you know, testosterone, one-upmanship than there might otherwise have been. And then, of course, you had the other things. It does look good within a company to have women on their board. It's possibly encouraging to the employees. I mean, that, I think, is the big thing.

MONTAGNE: Well, you know, what do you think, Lucy, of countries where lawmakers force companies to hire certain number of women on corporate boards? In Norway's case, it's a quota of 40 percent. You know, would this be a good thing, do you think, in the UK where you're, or here in the U.S.?

Ms. KELLAWAY: No. I think it's an absolutely terrible thing. I mean, you know, so now it's worked in the sense that I think there are now 44 percent of women on boards in Norway. They're nearly all non-execs, and there really aren't enough of them. So this is a ludicrous situation, where often one woman will be on the board of eight to 12 companies. I mean, that is not good governance. You'd get so mixed up, you wouldn't know which blinking meeting you were in.

MONTAGNE: Okay, last question. What was your most favorite moment on your board?

Ms. KELLAWAY: Ooh. I'll tell you one difference between the men and the women.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. KELLAWAY: Men do prefer playing the game I call I'm more important than you are. So one of the most contentious things in board meetings is agreeing the dates for future meetings. So everyone gets out their BlackBerry. And, you know, they say - the men always say, oh, you know, I'm a little bit tied up on, you know, March 3rd, 2013. And they will say those…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. KELLAWAY: …and then I sit there with my female colleague, both of us doing, you know, fulltime jobs elsewhere. And we sort of exchange little glances at that point.

MONTAGNE: Lucy Kellaway writes about workplace and management matters. And she joined us from her workplace in London at the Financial Times. Thanks for joining us.

Ms. KELLAWAY: Thank you.

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