Richard Branson & Chutzpah

Back in September, Sir Richard Branson wrote an op-ed for about why we need more women in the boardroom. I noticed a tweet about it and was happy to retweet, after all it is rare to see a male business leader of his caliber publicly advocating the benefits of having more women in business. In his article, Branson described watching the 1957 classic 12 Angry Men and being struck by how times have changed in terms of diversity. He then took the analogy from juries to business:

“So take a look at who’s sitting around your boardroom table. If you see 12 angry men, it’s time to write a new script!”

Hear hear! I studied for my MBA at INSEAD in 2003 and got into a big argument with a professor who screened 12 Angry Men for the class and then proceeded to lead a discussion about the jury’s group dynamics without acknowledging the mere fact that they were all white men. I thought it was great that Branson used this film to make his point. I also liked that despite not stating he was pro quotas, he came very close:

“I am not usually a fan of government involvement in private industry, but on this issue it seems to be needed… Fixing this injustice isn’t just good for your team: it’s good for business.”

If all this sounds too good to be true that’s because unfortunately, it is. I recently went from admiring Sir Richard Branson to feeling manipulated and used. New research finds that most of the boards of privately held companies in the UK are completely staffed by men. Branson’s Virgin Trains is the country’s 69th largest private company and it is on the top of that list. So it turns out Branson is cultivating the image of a progressive leader without bothering to clean up his own back yard. It’s completely misleading, not to mention condescending.

It’s chutzpah! I’ve been writing this blog from Tel Aviv for eight months now and this is the first time I feel the need to use a word in Hebrew because there is no suitable equivalent in English. The absence of women in business leadership cannot be a PR bandwagon Branson gets on when it’s convenient and he’s in the mood for some good karma. This is a leader who can basically do whatever he wants, he’s the fourth richest man in England. If he really believes in what he says he should hire women for leadership roles at Virgin Trains. If he doesn’t, he should at least stop with the charades.

Needless to say, I deleted my retweet. Took me half an hour to find it, but it made me feel better. I then noticed the company that conducted this research, BoardEx, is also privately held with a board which is 100% male… I guess it never ends.

May 2013 post-script: I followed up here after Branson acknowledged a gap between his statements and actual leadership roles for women in his own companies.

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  1. Thanks for bringing this to our attention, Daniella. As executive director of the 2020 Women on Boards campaign ( our job is to advance women to board positions. It’s shocking that Bramson, who is re-making his brand as a thought leader in the women’s leadership space, hasn’t cleaned house. Part of our campaign is to identify companies without women directors. We call them “Z” Zero Companies. Through a monthly mailing called the 2020 Challenge, our thousands of supporters have the opportunity to email a “Z” company and tell them to put a woman on its boards. Maybe we’ll feature Virgin Trains in our next Challenge. Hope you’ll register your support on the site!

  2. Daniella Alpher says:

    Thanks Malli, I am familiar with 2020 Women on Boards and was particularly impressed with the 12/12/12 national conversations you hosted in December. It’s a great organization, I hope you do feature Virgin Trains in your next Challenge!

  3. Our next event is on 11/12/13. Stay tuned!

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