How to help get more women on boards

Once you have settled into your board role, it's time to start thinking about how you can use your knowledge, experience and influence to help ease the path of other women wanting to take up leadership positions.

While a lot of progress has been made on the path to achieving equal representation on government boards, a lot more can be done if the women already successfully serving on boards make it their business to help others follow in their footsteps.

There are several ways you can do this.

Spread the word – use your networks

In the Networking and mentoring help sheet we outline how you can use your networks to help get yourself onto a board and work successfully in your new role. Now that you have gained some experience, it's time to put your networks into action again to promote the benefits of board service to other women.

Talk to any woman you think may be interested in what you're doing and why you're doing it. Tell them about the benefits of board service. Tell them about the support that's available for women taking on leadership roles. Point out the talents they have and how they can use them to strengthen their community by joining a board. Ask them if they would like further information and refer them to the Office of Women's policy website so they can learn more.

Encourage others to join the Women's Register

The Victorian Government coordinates a Women's Register, which has been put in place as part of a broad government strategy to increase the representation of women on boards and committees.

The register (discussed in more detail in The Victorian Women's Register help sheet) is used as a point of contact for government departments and not-for-profit organisations to help them find female candidates for board vacancies. It aims to make the nomination process as easy as possible by providing all information and nomination forms directly to suitable candidates.

If you know women who you think would be great board members, encourage them to sign up to the register. Point them to the help sheet mentioned above. The database already holds the details of about 1800 women but there is certainly room for more – in fact, the bigger the pool of candidates the better chance there is that a greater number will make it into the boardroom.

Offer your services as a mentor

As we mention in our Networking and mentoring help sheet, many women who have joined boards become discouraged if they are not offered any support. New board members need to know they are not alone. They need to be offered support, advice and encouragement – and there is no better person to fulfill this role than someone who has been through the process, knows the ups and downs and, more importantly, has some idea how to overcome any obstacles that might arise.

If you are an experienced board member, you can help support the development of others by taking an active interest in women who join your board or other boards that you know of – and asking them if you can be of any assistance. Of course, some will want to make their own way but most will be happy for the offer of help.

Mentoring relationships can hold many benefits. For you, there will be the satisfaction of passing your knowledge on and the chance to make new connections and friendships. For new board members, mentors can:

  • Help them identify and develop their strengths and aptitudes and minimise their weaknesses;
  • Reduce any feelings they might have of isolation or of being overwhelmed;
  • Provide support in difficult times and praise and encouragement when things are going well;
  • Guide them in articulating their goals and making plans to achieve them;
  • Offer advice about options for action;
  • Introduce them to other board members and others associated with or important to the board;
  • Brief them about the standards and behaviour expected of them;
  • Act as a sounding board for ideas they may want to test;
  • Explain the board dynamics and how the different board members interact;
  • Provide background information about complicated or long-standing issues the board has to deal with; and
  • Give feedback on how they are performing in their role.

You could also think about setting up a structured mentoring program for your board, if it doesn't have one already, so all new board members can make an easier transition to their new role.

Can I be a mentor?

It is important that you do not downplay what you can offer as a mentor or be intimidated by the role – after all, you probably already serve as a mentor (in practice if not in name) to various members of your circle of family, friends and colleagues.

The fact that you have made it onto a board at all is a good indication that you have a lot to offer as a mentor. However, you should also take into account some other qualities necessary for a good mentoring relationship. Good mentors are:

  • Empathetic, sensitive and responsive, with a good understanding of the challenges a new board member may face and an ability to guide inexperienced board members without forcing them in one particular direction or another.
  • Skilled and experienced, with an excellent knowledge of how boards operate and the roles and responsibilities board members need to carry out.
  • Good at solving problems, and able to effectively communicate advice or guidance to less experienced board members.
  • Discrete, being willing to respect all confidences and maintain trust.
  • Committed, being able to suspend self-interest on occasion and give up opportunities in order to offer new board members a chance to grow into and demonstrate themselves in their new role.
  • Generous, willingly offering their time, knowledge and contacts to help in the development of a new board member.
  • Patient, understanding that no person will know everything about a particular board or board role immediately.

Recommend others for board roles

From time to time you will no doubt come across vacancies on your board or other boards. Here is when you can use your influence to help encourage more board spots to be offered to women.

  • Think about all of the women you know who would be suitable board candidates. Make a list so you have names on-hand as soon as you hear about a board vacancy.
  • Every time you meet a woman (through work or socially) who you think would be a great board member, tell her about what you do and ask her if she would be interested in joining a board. Add her name and contact details to your list.
  • Find out when terms are up for renewal. When a board vacancy arises, don't wait to be asked – put forward a few names for consideration. Follow up your nominations to make sure your suggestions have not been dismissed out of hand.
  • Ask the people you have nominated if you can help them in any way (in preparing for an interview, for example).

Structural change

You should consider discussing with your board colleagues the possibility of making some structural changes to your board to make it easier for gender equity to be achieved. Efforts could include setting up an access and equity committee to ensure equal opportunity to board opportunities for all eligible people regardless of gender (or any other barriers).