Women on boards: is Central Europe back-peddling?

By Philippe Riboton, Managing Director at HR Partners International Executive Search

If you ever attend one of those business events organized by the local establishment in Central European capital cities such as Prague or Warsaw – where cheesy older men dressed in tuxedos congratulate each other by awarding each other some prizes for the so-called “best company” (God only knows what the “best company” means) it won’t take you too long to ask yourself a simple question: is there a woman on board anywhere? In other words where does gender diversity and women representation on boards stand in Central Europe?

The answer partially comes from the first survey of its kind called the European Gender Diversity Index, released in November last year by a Brussels based organization called European Women on Boards (EWoB) and analyzing the situation in the 200 largest companies of the Stoxx Europe 600 registered in nine European countries.

According to this very interesting survey the average female representation on boards in Europe is 33,6%. The great news for my beautiful country (please pardon my French) is that France is the European champion for female representation on boards with a smashing 44,2% (compared to 33,7% for Germany and 24,6% for Spain for example). So hats off to the five French companies leading the European Gender Diversity Index: Kering (60%), Sodexo (53,8%), Accor (50%), Axa (50%), and Bouygues (50%). More applause for the companies with a woman serving as CEO or Chair of the Executive Board and the highest percentage of women on the board: GlaxoSmithKline (UK), Wolters Kluver (Netherlands), Proximus (Belgium) and Engie (France). But the bad news is the only Central European country covered by the survey – the Czech Republic – stands at 19%.

In order to better understand this discrepancy I have asked three Central European female power figures to tell us how they see the situation in their country.

Grazyna Piotrowska-Oliwa is the CEO and President of Virgin Mobile Polska, the private equity owned mobile virtual network operator backed by the brand launched by Richard Branson. She is a former management board member with some of the largest Polish companies including Orange and PKN Orlen and a former supervisory board in PZU, one of the biggest European insurance companies. She has been a witness on the C-level of the transformation of the Polish economy over the past decade and she is considered one of the strongest females of Polish business. Unfortunately she says Polish society is back-paddling when it comes to the representation on the board level. “There is no doubt the situation is deteriorating”, she says. “The current political governance has put the religion in the middle of the stage and the representation of the woman is one if a mother who should take care of children. And this is affecting the workplace, even when it comes to the representation of women in supervisory boards or management boards. Women make a very large proportion of the management of very small companies but they are even more rare than before on the top seat of large Polish companies, and especially state-controlled companies.”

Iwona Olbrys, General Director at the Spanish owned restaurant chain Telepizza Poland, is another strong power woman in Polish society and quite often portrayed in the Polish media as a leading female voice in business. She says the situation is better in the private sector, pointing at the “Woman in Business 2017” survey, which puts Poland on the third rank of the countries with the highest number of women on the highest positions in companies. But if according to this survey 46% of financial directors and 25% of HR Directors in Poland are women she says only 8% are chairman of the board or managing directors. She believes the Polish society would gain from higher representation of women in the top seat: “I am a strong believer in gender diversity in management”, she says, “because of the wealth of natural differences in the approach to risk, the manner of communication, management style, strength of empathy and focus on emotional intelligence, intuition and conflict resolution skills. Thanks to this greatness of diversity”, she concludes, “the company enriches itself and strengthens its leadership.”

Andreea Moldovan is the General Manager for Southern Eastern Europe at the cosmetics company Avon, based in Bucharest, Romania. She says that based on a Eurostar survey conducted in 2017, “only 34 % of persons holding managerial positions in Romania were women, slightly below EU average. However, Romania is among the EU member states with the highest representation of women holding senior executive positions in the largest publicly listed companies, namely 25%”, she says, pointing at her own company, where she says out of four General Managers in Central Europe three are women. When asked what could be done in order to ensure better representation of women in top executive roles she says she would start by understanding the barriers women are facing in the way of becoming executives. “Even though the Romanian society evolved a lot, women are still pressured to play an important role in their family”, she says. “The pregnancy period is slowing down their career and the networking activities are often de-prioritized. When the family life starts women have less time available to invest in their own education and development.” That is why she is pushing for example to invest in women’s associations in order to support business networking and to encourage women to access on-line executive programs.

So let me leave the final word to the management consulting company McKinsey who says there are three best practices for the top management to consider in order to improve gender diversity on boards: “change your mindset”, McKinsey advises. “Make a visible commitment to diversity, set new principles for decision making. Expand your criteria (look beyond CEO’s and the C suite, consider candidates with the right expertise, not just those with prior board experience). And maintain an active pipeline (explicitly ask search firms for female candidates, cultivate long term relationships with prospective candidates).”

I would add one last – and gentle – piece of advice when it comes to Central European leaders: ban the old boys networks and their post-communist tuxedo style gathering events. And send them to the retirement house.

HR Partners International Executive Search attracts and contracts the most passionate, talented and globally minded business leaders for senior leadership and management roles throughout Western, Central and Eastern Europe. More at: www.hrpartners.eu

For more information on the European Women on Boards (EWoB) organization and the European Gender Diversity Index, visit: https://europeanwomenonboards.eu.

For more information on the McKinsey “Women in the workplace” survey, visit: https://womenintheworkplace.com