Our study of women on the boards of the top 50 companies in each of four countries, the UK, the US, Ghana and Nigeria, found that increasing gender diversity on boards is seen as an important goal for two main reasons. First, gender diversity is believed to improve the performance and effectiveness of a board. Second, by promoting social equity, gender diversity is thought to add legitimacy to a board and so increase the motivation and loyalty of employees.
Our findings indicate that the presence of less than three women on a board has no significant effect on board performance (according to a number of both hard and soft measures) largely because women are unlikely to challenge their male board colleagues, for fear of being marginalised. We also found that the Chairman’s role is crucial in addressing diversity issues in areas such as appointments, and the evaluation of commitment to the board.
Participants shared similar social and professional backgrounds, had good social skills, and were strong characters. Their backgrounds and personalities made them members of an international elite that transcends differences in national cultures and stages of economic development. Successful female directors understand board work. They perceive invisible power relationships, detect hidden meanings and the significance of silences, are familiar with embedded norms and values of boardroom etiquette, and are adept at building political coalitions.
Participants were not in favour of mandatory quotas:
“We need more women on boards, but not through quotas. Quotas undermine these women who worked very hard to get where they are now. Organisations can widen the pool of talented individuals suitable for board positions by grooming women first, adopting a level playing-field in recruitment and promotion as well as actively encouraging talented women to find roles as NEDs with other organisations and/or recommending them to recruiters.” (UK)
“The problem of female under-representation on the board cannot be solved by a quota system. I think that we need systematic education from the bottom up.” (Ghana)
“No, definitely no quotas! Quotas would undermine our achievements.” (USA)
“No, no quotas please! Quota systems will damage our credibility’ (Nigeria)
The female directors in our study felt strongly that women should gain board positions on merit. Having worked hard to reach the board they were adamantly opposed to the dilution of their achievements by an influx of potential under-achievers emerging from a quota system. Moreover, some were proud that their hard work had changed attitudes about women in the boardroom and that they served as role models for women aspiring to emulate their achievements. The study revealed that female directors are jealous of their positions, and suggested that this and the pride they take in their achievements may have the unintended consequence of preserving the low gender diversity status quo. The study participants felt other women should follow the same trail they had blazed, and not evade the hard work they had invested in achieving their board positions. This is the so-called ‘Queen Bee’ syndrome.
The study cast doubt on the ability of directors of both genders to receive and digest feedback well, especially when the route to the top has been stretching and demanding.