Friday, 16 November 2012

Male vs Female Boards = VHS vs Betamax

Women's Minister Maria Miller is doing Britain a great disservice by arguing against Board quotas for women.

Other women have been piling in saying things like "blah blah....getting there on merit...blah blah". Men are laughing up their sleeves at the way powerful women who should know better are fighting AGAINST quotas. What on earth are you doing, for goodness sake.

I have been thinking about why this is and I have concluded that women have not spent nearly enough time studying the science of complexity. But, not to worry. Let me help out.

It is important to understand that taken all together the hundreds of Boards of UK plc are basically one huge complex system. So to understand the dynamics you need to look at it as one interconnected system rather than a thousand discrete Boards (it would be really interesting to build a simulation model of a thousand boards and see how it evolves over time and when you try to make changes).

Now complex systems exhibit some interesting and sometimes counter-intuitive behaviour. One important behaviour is "lock-in". This is where a complex system settles into a state where the same behaviour repeats  over and over again. It is "locked-in" to that state and is very difficult to dislodge. Market dynamics, all that "best person for the job" stuff will not shift such a system once its locked-in. You try to shift it out of this locked-in state by making an intervention here and there but the powerful underlying dynamics of the complex system as a whole drag it back to the locked-in state.

The bad news is that this locked-in state often doesn't give the best solution. A well known example is VHS vs Betamax in the video market. The market became locked-in to VHS even though betamax was said to be a technically better solution. Upping the anti on selling betamax would never change the system once locked-in. It took a massive  intervention in the form of the the arrival of DVDs to break that lock-in.

So, in the UK we have a complex system called UK Board plc and it is locked-in to a sub-optimal VHS solution where  it has evolved to be overwhelmingly male dominated, thereby systematically ignoring the talent in 50% of the population. We are in a war for talent and we are battling against emerging economies that use every asset they can lay hands on and work like crazy to win and what do we do? Deliberately and knowingly restrict our ability to draw upon the talent of 50% of the population. Yeh, real smart, eh!

In the case of UK Board plc the only way to shift it (in our lifetimes) is by forcing massive change in the complex system and breaking out of the lock-in. That means imposing quotas. If you think that all this "cream rises to the surface/right person for the job" stuff is going to effect that change you are kidding yourself.

One of the most annoying things I hear people saying against quotas is that women only want to be on the board if they get there on their own merit. What does that mean exactly? Let me tell you a secret. Most men on Board's didn't get there on merit, they know it perfectly well and it doesn't trouble them one little bit. Sure, they are probably  competent and have served their time in corporate life without completely screwing up. But let's be realistic. They got on to the Board because they know the Chairman, or a friend of the Chairman, or a headhunter who the Chairman trusts, or some chaps at the golf club that the Chairman belongs to. Or they share a Board with some other good chaps who put in a word. So, you are going to take lessons on "merit" from the men that brought us the banking crisis, the longest recession since the great depression, mis-selling scandal after mis-selling scandal and press complaints? "Pur-leee-zeeee" (said in an American drawl)

Merit, Schmerit (I love the way you can dismiss almost anything by repeating a word with "Sch..." on the front. Except Schweppes). There is no way competent, committed women are going to do a worse job. So, your job is to break the lock-in and get into those positions en masse. Not for your sakes. For Britain's sake. And for your daughters. And their daughters.

Face facts. UK Board plc is locked-in to a sub-optimal male dominated VHS solution. Without a powerful intervention it will stay like that for the next 50 years and we will continue to waste the executive talent of half our population.

It's time to gen up on the science of complexity and really understand how the system works.


Anonymous said...

Women understand perfectly the science of complexity - the edge of chaos is where we sip our tea. What we dont understand is the point of all the boards apart from providing some otherwise redundant men a form of employment.

Moira said...

I have formed a new theory. It is called the White Middle Class Male Dinosaur. I expect to see them become extinct over the next few decades. I do not wish them to be obliterated by a giant meteorite, but just to slowly be pushed aside by amazing women, young people of all flavours, and a new world order. Or at least, it is a rather attractive notion. It is the 21st century and women still earn 25% less then men do, FOR DOING THE SAME JOB! We women do really need some help. I read somewhere that women will only apply for a job if they know that they can do everything on the list, and men apply for a job if they can do some of it! So, we obviously have a whole range of somewhat incompetent men doing jobs they cannot do, and they are perfectly OK about that. Bizarre. (Mr Ilube excepted of course)!

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