Boards are the primary governing body of any organisation, setting strategy and signing off on key decisions. But despite their importance, in startups they’re still mostly a boys’ club.
45% of European startups have no female board members, according to a new report by ESG_VC, an industry initiative helping startups to measure and improve their ESG performance, and the British Venture Capital Association.
Of the 450 VC-backed companies surveyed, just 135 said that between 1% and 25% of their boards identified as women.
The case for having a diverse board is clear: they boost governance, performance and customer service and provide inspiration for women looking to get into senior positions, says Aline Vedder, a principal at Lakestar.
“Unless startups are selling only to men and have male-only teams, it's critical to have a well-rounded board — one that brings the operational expertise you need to grow your company and spots opportunities or challenges you may not,” says Sarah Drinkwater, an angel investor who's one of very few women raising a solo GP fund.
Why are there so few women on boards — and what’s the impact?
Startups typically create boards after their seed or Series A rounds, and are usually comprised of the founders and their existing investors.
The lack of female founders reaching Series A, coupled with the low share of female partners in VC, makes creating diverse boards challenging, says Drinkwater.
A male-dominated board can have a negative impact on the number of women a company has at executive level too. Of the companies surveyed, 15% said they had no female representation at all in executive roles.
Drinkwater says companies with few or no female board members are often unable to see diverse teams as a “business asset” and can affect their ability to hire senior female talent.
Of the companies surveyed, 15% said they had no female representation at all in executive roles
One in 10 companies surveyed said they didn't collect data on the percentage of women in leadership.
Of the 75% of companies that did report having women in their senior leadership, only 11.5% of them reported having a management team that was at least 50% female.
Creating clear policy
Diversity hasn’t always been a top priority for the VC industry either, but change is afoot, says Lakestar’s Vedder.
There's now a “gradual shift towards mandating diverse boards” at firms due to increased pressure from LPs.
Growth-stage VC Revaia, for example, has brought the percentage of its portfolio companies with at least one female board member to 90% from 25% after it introduced a “best effort” clause in term sheets — which requires startups try to ensure there is at least one female board member within 12 months, or the next time they add a new member.
Increasing diversity at board level
Instead of waiting around for things to change on a structural level, companies can bring in more diverse perspectives, experience and operational expertise to their boards by hiring a non-executive director (NED) — an independent board member typically recruited after Series A or B.
“Female operators with domain expertise can make fantastic NEDs — to increase their representation on boards, we need more transparency around board work in general and more clarity on what the process of joining a board is like,” says Drinkwater.
Companies looking to create career paths for women to get into senior positions also need to pay attention to recruitment.
“Being strict with your headhunters to go beyond the obvious names and find diverse talent is really important, otherwise you can get lazy shortlists back,” says Julie Chakraverty, founder of employee listening platform Rungway, which has a 50:50 male/female board representation and a female chair.
She adds that companies should create opportunities for women to demonstrate their leadership skills to the board by offering up ideas around future trends that will impact the business, such as AI, ESG or changing consumer patterns.