One and Done

Author: Dr Terri Simpkin, Associate at Portman Partners

Yesterday I had the pleasure of delivering a workshop for the ICSA conference in London. As the premier conference event for company secretaries, and board and governance professionals, it was an opportunity to explore how inclusion and diversity in corporate governance, in all its guises, is being addressed. It was encouraging to realise that the issue of inclusion was not a discrete topic of discussion, but rather one that permeated many of the issues under scrutiny and discussion.

Inclusion, as part of a serious corporate strategy, has long been a pressing matter for senior leadership and boards. While the business case for inclusion has been delivered time and time again, genuine broad-ranging results are slow in coming and often deliver a ‘one step forward, two steps back’ outcome.

As part of her keynote, Denise Wilson OBE, Chief Executive of the Hampton-Alexander Review lamented the lingering spectre of the ‘one and done’ club – the 75 boards in the FTSE 350 that have only one woman on the board.

“The 33% target is a collective effort and it is incumbent on every FTSE 350 listed company to play their part – get with the new norm – today one woman at the table, is little different to none!”

My professional and academic work investigating the prevalence and impact of the impostor phenomenon, the feeling of intellectual phoniness often experienced by high achieving women, clearly illustrates that the ‘one and done’ approach to diversity is, indeed, worse than having no women at all. Here’s why:

1. “I don’t belong here”

When ‘otherness’ is not only experienced by the individual but also clearly visible to others, impostor experiences are heightened. Being the ‘one and only’ confirms the erroneous, but pervasive, narrative of ‘I don’t belong here’ and compounds possible feelings of inadequacy despite overt evidence to the contrary.

2. “Hello, I’m your token woman”

People who experience unwarranted, but very real, ‘impostor’ feelings and thoughts externalise their successes, attributing their achievements to luck, being in the right place at the right time or some other mechanism unrelated to their own capacities. Being the ‘one and only’ compounds the notion that they’re there to tick a box as a token effort. Whether this is true or not, women who experience the impostor phenomenon are likely to be experiencing an internal battle to realise that they’re there because of their merits and value to the organisation, rather than being there simply to remedy a diversity shortfall.

3. “I can’t get a word in edgewise”

Speaking to women from all over the world, as part of my research, has illustrated time and time again that being the single woman on a board, or project team, or even in their workplace, means they must do battle to have their voices heard, have their input recognised and make their presence known.

‘One and done’ puts people in a position where they are already seen as the ‘other’ and are also on the ‘outer’ which, in impostor phenomenon terms, puts professional, personal and cognitive strain on someone who is already likely to be struggling internally with the notion of being a legitimate player at board level.

My empirical research and anecdotal evidence from conversations with the hundreds of (mostly) women who have attended my workshops over the past year or so, is clearly indicating that the ‘one and done’ approach to board diversity (be it on gender or any other diversity criteria) is not only ineffective in creating true inclusion at senior levels, but it can put a strain on an individual who will find confirmation in their ‘I don’t belong here’ narrative. One and done is simply not good enough on any measure.

While we now have a better than 30% representation of women on FTSE 100 boards, there is a long way to go to fully embed the structures, behaviours and motivations in organisations to see broad-ranging inclusion at the upper echelons of corporate governance. The Hampton-Alexander Review clearly illustrates that there is a disconnect between the knowledge that inclusion is a strategic and governance imperative, and doing something effective to achieve it. Looking at how the impostor phenomenon is working to diminish the triad of personal, organisational and governance outcomes is key to gaining traction with inclusion initiatives at board level and within the talent pipeline.

This blog was written by Dr Terri Simpkin, a leading expert in the ‘Impostor Phenomenon’. You can find her original blog here, as well as many more resources surrounding the subject here.