Thursday, September 11, 2014

Corporate Boardrooms: Where are the Women?

By Amanda Clayton, WAPPP Fellow, Postdoctoral Fellow, Free University of Berlin

During the global financial crisis, several public figures asked: would we be here if Lehman Brothers had been Lehman Sisters? This question resurfaced in late 2013 when Twitter went public with an all-male corporate board The New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof to wryly point out if Twitter added three women, “its board would still have as many men named Peter as women.”

The lack of women in business leadership is shocking. Despite an increase in female MBA students, women currently account for 17% of Fortune 500 board members and just 4% of CEOs.

So why include women in the boardroom? A Transparency International study notes that women tend to be less corrupt than men in business and government. Women are also more risk-adverse according to a UC Santa Barbara study.  Moreover, a Catalyst report shows that women's representation on corporate boards is associated with better financial performance.

Although encouraging, this line of research is unsettling for some gender scholars. Labeling women as more risk-adverse and less corrupt not only sets unreasonable expectations for women, but also can digress into essentialist arguments - similar to espousing men as naturally better leaders.

This issue is not about women saving Wall Street -- it's about fairness. Research presented by Shelley Correll at Stanford University's Clayman Institute for Gender Research explains how largely implicit gender biases still hold women back in the workplace. Similar research reveals that managers hire applicants they feel will be a good “cultural match” (read: white men) and, once hired, these don't leave.

The persistence of this uneven playing field recently caused Harvard Business School to seriously reevaluate its organizational culture. Similarly, ten countries have adopted quotas for women on publicly traded company boards to fast track gender equality.

What are the benefits here? A recent study in Science co-authored by WAPPP faculty affiliate, Rohini Pande, shows that seeing female leaders increases girls' career aspirations and educational attainment. That is, letting women into the boardroom not only remedies current inequalities, it encourages future generations of young women to throw their hats in the ring.

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