Inspiring Change With the Women’s Directorship Programme

Amy Lau, Hong Kong, global education magazineProf. Amy Lau 

Director of Executive Education and Chair Professor of Accounting, Faculty of Business and Economics, The University of Hong Kong:


Nick Marsh, Harvey Nash Executive Search, global education magazine

Nick Marsh 


Managing Director of Harvey Nash Executive Search APAC, an executive search and leadership consulting firm:



Abstract: Women’s progression in the workplace is stalling. There are multiple barriers to be faced in increasing female participation in the workforce and ensuring they have equal opportunities to fulfil their potential. Executive search and leadership consulting firm Harvey Nash and The University of Hong Kong created a joint-venture in 2013, to launch a certificated, cross-industry, internationally focused board preparedness programme for women. The aims of the programme are to increase the pool of board-ready female talent, ready to take on the challenges of the boardroom and raise the importance of equal opportunities in the workplace, enabling women to reach their full potential. The programme aims to take tangible action to tackle the current global boardroom gender imbalance through an academically-led series of lectures and workshops, on subjects such as the role of board members, compliance, regulation and ethical decision making. The programme also consists of a series of personal talks from global business leaders in person. By engaging the business community – enabling business leaders to share their knowledge and experience as part of the programme – the Women’s Directorship Programme is front and centre of driving change, enhancing the visibility of this issue, and in turn highlighting the women themselves. Our methods for achieving our objectives involved creating a programme for an elite group of women and providing on-going support through the alumni network. The Women’s Directorship Programme alumni are an active group of international female leaders representing the cross-sector global business community. Results to date include: The involvement of the business community (including over 20 business leaders as guest speakers) and their commitment to change; 30 percent of the women from the inaugural Women’s Directorship Programme have now gone on to sit on boards. 30 percent achieved a promotion within six months of starting the programme; all participants claim it has served to raise their visibility within the business community and they now benefit from the Women’s Directorship Programme’s network; thirty women executives have now been on the programme and are part of the alumni; the programme has been cited as best practice by the business leaders involved and has received coverage from The FT, International New York Times and Bloomberg; it is recognized by the 30% Club London and Hong Kong as a transformative initiative. The Women’s Directorship Programme is a long-term approach to manage the pipeline of female talent and promote equal opportunities for women.


Key words: Gender diversity, female leaders, women on boards, Women’s Directorship Programme, women in business.


Defining the issue

More companies across the globe are starting to recognize the competitive advantage of having a gender balanced board. A more diverse board serves to better represent the interests of shareholders and stakeholders and is proven to result in greater business success. But with less than 10% of women represented at board level positions internationally, progress is sluggish.

Efforts are underway to increase female participation on boards and in senior management positions. For example, the UN is focused and committed to tackling inequality, there are voluntary and in some markets, enforced regulations to increase the representation of women on boards, and International Women’s Day serves as a fantastic platform to raise awareness of women’s struggle for equality in the workplace, and their positive impact on the world’s economy.

Nevertheless, change is painfully slow and women still face multiple barriers to their career progression. When we set out to create the Women’s Directorship Programme in 2013 there was a great deal of talk, but little action. Here we outline the state of play.

Gender imbalance is a global trend

Women currently represent around 10 percent of all board-level positionsi worldwide, even though they make up over 40 percentii of the global workforce. To bring this to life, the US currently has an average of almost 17 percent women on boards, in Europe 16 percent and in Asia the figure stands at around 7 percent, according to Catalystiii.

Men continue to dominate the top ranks of nearly every firm across the world, and they continue to hire in their own image. Companies have a tendency to fear change and the unknown, which means they more often than not hire men, using channels to access people they know of, or are already familiar with. But change is coming…

Gender imbalance is costly

The gender imbalance costs firms money, as those who fail to attract, retain and promote women to top leadership positions experience a significant drain on resources and talent. AMcKinseystudyiv found that companies with the highest female representation in top management positions achieved return on equity of 41 percent higher than companies with the lowest representation.

Recent moves in Europe, where the European Parliament passed a vote requiring large, listed companies ensure women hold 40 percent of non-executive board seats by 2020v, are a timely reminder of the need for companies to act. This directive may lead to female leaders in other regions being called upon to take up board positions in Europe, resulting in a costly drain on talent in some markets.

Giving women equal opportunities and enabling them to reach their full potential also offers macroeconomic benefits. In Japan for example, by 2030 the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research estimates the labour force will have contracted by over 15 percentvi, threatening GDP growth and placing a high burden on those in work to provide benefits for a growing number of retirees. Women could be a key solution to this problem as they are currently underrepresented in the workforce and often overlooked for senior positions. Japan is now committed to changing the levels of female participation with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe recently reviving a government target set a decade ago, of raising the proportion of women in leadership positions to 30 percent by 2020. Listed companies are also required to appoint at least one woman to their board of directors. In a positive first move, Honda has just announced its first female board member, Hideko Kuniivii.

The benefits of gender balanced boards are well documented, not only do women serve to better represent the needs and wants of shareholders, but they bring a fresh dynamic and a skillset that enriches the boardroom. It is proven that greater diversity ensures a better outcome, so why is progress stalling?

Issues at play

There are many factors at play that impact on the existing gender imbalance – societal expectations, family pressures, workplace culture and environmental barriers. In Asia in particular the double burden of balancing work and family pressures wears many women down, especially in places such as India, Japan and Korea, coupled with a general lack of government support for childcare and other family-led initiatives.

Companies often highlight the lack of a skilled talent pool of women – though research consistently demonstrates this is not the case. Female leaders are simply more hidden and less inclined to put themselves forward as they do not feel empowered or ready to take on a board role. Many current female leaders highlight a lack of confidence as a key barrier to their progression. Statistics show women will only put themselves forward for a role if they feel they fulfil at least 80 percent of the stated criteria, while men will pursue a role if they only fulfil 50-60 percent of the requirements.

The recent report by Community Business on Board Diversityviii, highlights 92 percent of those questioned identified barriers to making boards more diverse, with 33 percent stating the inability to identify diverse board candidates.

Through the development of the Women’s Directorship Programme and contact with our global network of senior businesswomen, we know the talent is out there and the old arguments are redundant. Fundamentally, creating more balanced teams leads to better, more robust decisions, improved performance and mitigates risk. When this is viewed as a business issue rather than a gender issue why would you neglect or fail to engage with almost half of the workforce, clients and other stakeholders?

The key issue for all firms is the retention of female talent – maintaining a strong pipeline is essential in order to make a change at board level in the future. Currently increasing numbers of women are choosing to opt outixof the workforce at middle management and policies need to be implemented to ensure all our best and brightest female talent stay engaged.

The diversity agenda needs to be led from the top, change comes with buy-in from senior management. Engaging more male champions within every organisation is critical as they currently hold the influence to make this change.

Introducing the Women’s Directorship Programme

Gender diversity is a long debated and discussed issue, but we were seeing little action being taken to tackle the root cause of the issue.

In the context of all these global issues, and a clear business need to change the dynamics of boardrooms across the globe, Harvey Nash set out to discover steps that were being taken to enhance the readiness of female talent to take on board positions. What we identified was a huge gap between discussion and action – there were no internationally-led programmes available to support women to build their confidence and prepare them for the next step in their careers. Therefore in 2012 Harvey Nash partnered with The University of Hong Kong and the Women’s Directorship Programme was created to answer the worldwide business community’s call to tackle the existing gender diversity imbalance.

Harvey Nash and Executive Education of the Faculty of Business and Economics launched the certificated Women’s Directorship Programme in early 2013 with a view to enabling participants to be more effective at managing boards, and serving to increase the supply of board-ready women executives across geographies and business sectors.

The partnership between an academic institution and a commercial enterprise enabled two entities to combine their expertise and connections. This CSR-led programme has captured the attention of the worldwide business community serving to focus attention on the gender agenda and enabling senior leaders to take action.

The aims of the programme are two fold:

  • Firstly to increase the pool of board-ready female talent, ready to take on the challenges of the boardroom
  • And secondly to raise the importance of equal opportunities in the workplace, enabling women to reach their full potential

The Women’s Directorship Programme has two core components – world class teaching by international faculty members of The Hong Kong University and real life case studies and thought leadership delivered by senior business leaders.

We engaged an array of international guest speakers in the programme who are champions of diversity including Sir Roger Carr, Chairman of BAE Systems; Donald Brydon, Chairman of Sage Group and Royal Mail; Susan Gilchrist, CEO of Brunswick Group; Ruth Markland, Senior INED of Standard Chartered Bank and Arcadis, Anne Minto, INED of Shire and Tate & Lyle, John Rice, Vice Chairman of GE and Jean-Pascal Tricoire, Chairman & CEO of Schneider Electric.

The programme aims to address contemporary issues in the workplace and enables the participants to share openly with their female peers. There is no one size fits all solution to address the lack of women directors. However this programme is aimed at helping participants develop their own set of strategies tailored to their career ambitions, situation and personality, recognising that these will evolve over time as new challenges arise and elements in their lives change.

The programme includes five modules, taught over two three-day sessions and covers the following subjects:

  • The Real-World Roles of Board and Committee Members
  • Persuasive Communication and Conflict Resolutions
  • Public Company and Securities Market Regulation
  • Board Appointment and Strategic Leadership
  • Ethics and Compliance

The course is designed to equip participants with the skills and knowledge needed to demonstrate they are ready for the responsibilities of the boardroom as a Director or Non-Executive Director. It also helps women already on boards who want to improve their skills and knowledge to a world-class level – many of those involved in the programme are already board members, highlighting the caliber of the female talent involved.

There are a number of requirements all participants need to meet in order to ensure that the programme is conducted to suit a certain skillset and level of understanding. These requirements ensure that all participants gain the maximum benefit from the six-day programme:

  • All participants must have been working in a leadership role for five years or more
  • All participants must have financial exposure / responsibility for P&L

The class sizes are restricted in order to ensure the best quality teaching for the participants and in order to manage the development of each participant effectively. All candidates are vetted to ensure they fit the profile of the programme participants.


“In this fast paced world we need to ensure the business community evolves to best reflect the interests of consumers – well balanced boardrooms are important in achieving success. This programme is most beneficial in terms of enhancing the development of women leaders to provide the next generation of board members.”

Donald Brydon, Chairman of Sage Group and Royal Mail and guest speaker

Board diversity is an essential ingredient for continued growth and business success. The Women’s Directorship Programme has proved to be a positive catalyst in empowering the next generation of women leaders to gain the confidence and skills needed to secure board positions.

Regarding our primary objective of increasing the pool of board-ready female talent ready to take on the challenges of the boardroom, thirty women have now gone through the programme within the first year.

Fifteen participants from a range of business sectors, including banking and finance, telecoms, insurance, communications and logistics, took part in the inaugural programme in early 2013. Fifteen more are currently going through the second installment of the programme. The women benefit from peer-to-peer learning with those from other industry sectors and markets, with many travelling from the other side of the world to join the programme.

Benefits realised to date for the participants include:

  • Enhanced networks and visibility
  • Increased confidence
  • Defined career plans and objectives
  • Higher profile within their companies and externally
  • Exposure to additional board roles

The Women’s Directorship Programme has highlighted the keys to success in a woman’s career – sponsorship, mentoring, coaching and networking. The programme has enabled participants to develop board communication and management skills, develop tailored strategies to realise their career ambitions, gain access to senior business leaders and benefit from peer-to-peer learning from high achieving women from different business sectors and cultures.

After the completion of the inaugural programme, 30 percent of the participants went on to hold board positions and a further 30 percent achieved a promotion.

The Women’s Directorship Programme alumni network serves to provide on-going support and networking opportunities to ensure the past participants are well placed for the next step in their careers.

Ruth Rowan, Marketing Director AMEA of BT Group, a participant on the inaugural programme, described the course as an opportunity to broaden her experience and perspective, and highlighted the opportunity to network with senior business leaders. She added: “I’m certainly delighted that I took the initiative to join this course and would encourage anyone, male or female to think more broadly about how we invest in developing ourselves to the same extent that we consider how we develop our teams and our businesses. It’s only going to be a win-win for everyone.”

See more responses herex.

Secondly we planned to raise the importance of equal opportunities in the workplace, enabling women to reach their full potential. Results to date include:

  • The involvement of the business community (including over 20 business leaders as guest speakers) and their commitment to change
  • The programme itself has been cited as best practice by the business leaders involved and has received widespread coverage in global outlets including The FT, International New York Times and Bloomberg
  • It is recognized by the 30% Clubxi London and Hong Kong as a transformative initiative and has gained high renown with Chairmen of FTSE 100 companies

In terms of the wider implications of this programme, it has served to highlight the numbers of women ready to take on board roles and has enhanced the visibility of the issue as a whole. This in turn serves to inspire other women to follow suit and over the coming years we will track the enhanced participation rate and better business outcomes as a result.

The programme is a long-term approach to manage the pipeline of female talent and promote equal opportunities for women.

Together with the business community we are committed to creating lasting change by unlocking the talent pipeline and enabling more senior women leaders to reach the boardroom. We are already starting to see the transformation through the enlarged group of board-ready participants and their impact as agents of change.

Growth of the programme

The first programme took place in April and June 2013. The second Women’s Directorship Programme is underway (Session One in February and Session Two in March 2014) and due to high demand we are planning to run two installments this year. The third programme will be offered in October and November 2014.

We have ambitious plans to expand the Women’s Directorship Programme into new markets in the coming years to help drive further change.

Next steps

Development programmes such as the Women’s Directorship Programme are only one piece of the puzzle for improving the representation of women on boardrooms and senior positions across the world. Changing representation at the top will only be truly possible with the commitment from companies – to change existing embedded practices, search firms – to focus on how they identify talent, and women themselves.

Women need to adopt the four keys to success as highlighted through the Women’s Directorship Programme. These elements, coupled with the support of their peers, organisations and on-going training, in addition to commitments from search firms, will result in a positive uplift of the number of women progressing through the ranks:

  • Mentoring programmes – either becoming a mentor and passing on knowledge to others, or finding a mentor
  • Coaching – enhancing confidence and up-skilling
  • Sponsorship – earning the right to have a sponsor
  • Networking – women are naturally excellent networkers in a social setting, but they need to refocus their efforts on professional networking.

Now is the time for change

With the global average of women holding board positions standing at just 10 percent, the big focus needs to be managing the pipeline – ensuring women leaders are ready to progress and work their way up the ladder to take on these senior roles in the future. Social dynamics are shifting, men are no longer the sole breadwinners and it is widely recognised that women make 80 percent of all purchasing decisions.

Programmes such as the Women’s Directorship Programme serve to raise the business benefits of balanced boards and the visibility of the plethora of female talent out there. In turn it also enables women to see the opportunities that exist.

It makes sense for women to achieve the same success as men across the globe – the business community just needs to readjust and realise the full value women bring to the boardroom table.


ii Global workforce statistics, World Bank – Women and the 2012 World Development Report:,,contentMDK:23002997~pagePK:64165401~piPK:64165026~theSitePK:469372,00.html

v EU Parliament proposal:

vi National Institute of Population and Social Security Research:

viii Community Business, Board Diversity in Hong Kong: Directors’ Perspectives 2013:

ix Forbes, “Why is ‘opting out’ a bad word for women?”, 2012:

x Participants responses from the Women’s Directorship Programme website:

xi The 30% Club website:


This article was published on 8th March: International Women´s Day, in Global Education Magazine.

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