Gender Divides Board Members on Some Issues


By Rebecca R. Hastings, SPHR October 3, 2012
Male and female directors on corporate boards around the world have very similar views about the economic, political and business challenges facing their companies, research finds, but different opinions about board diversity.

“We see a remarkable consensus among men and women directors globally regarding the top 2012 political issues and the threat of increased regulation in this turbulent economy,” said Susan Stautberg, co-founder and co-chair of WomenCorporateDirectors (WCD). “There was often greater distinction between U.S. and non-U.S. respondents than between men and women,” she noted in a news release about the report.

The 2012 Board of Directors Survey was released Sept. 27, 2012, by Heidrick & Struggles, a leadership advisory firm, and WCD. The survey was fielded between April 18 and June 8, 2012, by Boris Groysberg, professor of business administration at the Harvard Business School and Deborah Bell, a researcher of organizational behavior. Respondents included 1,067 directors from 58 countries. Sixty-two percent served on boards outside the U.S. By gender, 60 percent of respondents were male and 40 percent were female.

“This is the deepest and broadest exploration we have ever doneinto how boards think and how they operate,” Bell said.

Areas of Agreement and Disagreement

“Gender differences practically disappeared when we looked at how men and women directors think about issues like the economy,” said Bonnie Gwin, vice chairman and co-managing partner of Heidrick & Struggles’ North American Board and CEO Practice, in the report. “These bottom-line business issues tend to elicit the greatest consensus in the boardroom.”

There is less agreement between men and women in the area of board diversity. Female respondents said the most effective way to build diverse corporate boards is to have board leaders and CEOs act as champions of diversity. Men agreed that board leaders must play a key role but ranked a well-developed and diverse pipeline of candidates as equally effective.

Boards continue to struggle with diversity and have made little progress, observed Bell. Differences of opinion as to the cause of the diversity gap could be part of the problem.

When asked to name the primary reason that the percent of women on boards is not increasing, 45 percent of male respondents around the world said the cause was a lack of women in executive ranks. Just 18 percent of female respondents around the world agreed. Instead, the top reason given by women (35 percent, globally) was that traditional networks tend to be male-oriented.

“There is a clear perception gap when it comes to evaluating how the still predominantly male business networks impact the number of women on boards,” Stautberg noted. “Women see a real need to develop the kinds of networks that have historically been the path to directorships.”

“On many boards, creating an inclusive culture for the organization has not been a point of focus,” Groysberg said in the report. “The increased importance of diversity to organizational success, however, is compelling boards to make it part of their strategic focus.”

Diversity Quotas a Contentious Topic

Respondents outside the U.S. are more likely than their U.S. counterparts to believe quotas mandating that a certain number or percentage of seats be reserved for women or minorities are an effective tool for increasing boardroom diversity (38 percent vs. 30 percent), though fewer indicated personal support for quotas (28 percent and 22 percent, respectively). This is not surprising, given that quotas are already in place or being contemplated in various parts of the world.

On this issue, however, there is a significant gender gap between female and male directors in the U.S. Just over half the female directors surveyed (51 percent) believe quotas are an effective tool for increasing diversity in the boardroom; 25 percent of male directors agreed. Far fewer—39 percent of female and 18 percent of male directors in the U.S.—said they support quotas personally.

“Board quotas remain an evergreen topic, as some countries seek to legislate diversity,” Gwin observed. “However, we see from these numbers that quotas don’t garner overwhelming support even from women directors.”

Rebecca R. Hastings, SPHR, is an online editor/manager for SHRM

Related Articles:

Increase Diversity on Boards to Avoid Facebook-Like Scrutiny, SHRM Online Diversity Discipline, September 2012

Proposed Quota of Women on European Corporate Boards Opposed, SHRM Online Legal Issues, September 2012

Gender Goal Proposed for Canadian Board Members, SHRM Online Diversity Discipline, March 2012

Gender Influences Opinions of Board Diversity, SHRM Online Diversity Discipline, September 2011

Boards Let Women into the Clubhouse, SHRM Online Diversity Discipline, December 2010

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