On Corporate Boards, Do Women and Men Think Differently?
For all the commentary this year on the continuing dearth of women in the boardroom (including our stories here, here, and here), a key question remains unanswered: do men and women board directors think about corporate governance differently from one another?
Two Harvard researchers have examined this issue in a new study, the 2012 Board of Directors Survey [PDF]. What they found is that men and women board members are well aligned in their views of the business risks and the challenges facing their companies. But when it comes to their views on why boardrooms lack gender diversity, thats where they part ways.
The third-annual study was carried out by Harvard Business School professor Boris Groysberg and organizational behavior researcher Deborah Bell, and published by the executive search firm Heidrick & Struggles, and WomenCorportateDirectors, a global membership organization. It surveyed more than 1,000 directors (60 percent men, 40 percent women) in 58 countries. Thirty-seven percent of respondents hailed from the U.S.
Men and women agreed on their top political concerns: unemployment and the economy, and the federal budget deficit. Gender differences practically disappeared when we looked at how men and women directors think about issues like the economy, Bonnie Gwin, a managing partner at Heidrick, commented in the report. (Indeed, the survey noted more differences between U.S. and non-U.S. directors than between genders on political and economic concerns, with about a third of directors outside the U.S. ranking energy costs as a top concern, compared to about one fifth of U.S. directors).
As for corporate challenges to strategic growth, men and women answered about the same: 45 percent of male directors and 42 percent of female directors agree that the greatest obstacle to achieving their companies strategic objectives is the regulatory environment, the report finds.
Men and women directors are also united in their concern about talent management. The challenge of the regulatory environment is followed closely by that of attracting and retaining top talent, with 41 percent of women directors and 43 percent of men citing strategic issues, the report states.
Despite the fact that directors are voicing these concerns, the study identified sizeable gaps in succession planning on boards. For instance, 43 percent of women and 48 percent of men said their boards do not have an effective CEO succession planning process, the report states. And only 46 percent of the U.S. directors surveyed said that their boards have an effective process for director succession.
The study also identified a business strategy that women found more important than men: the adoption of new technologies. Take social media and mobile apps, for example. More than half of women said that social media is important (54 percent), as is the adoption of mobile apps (51 percent), compared to 43 percent and 38 percent of men, respectively.
Women were also more likely to believe technology expertise was missing on the board: 36 percent of female directors cited technology as a missing or insufficient area of expertise, compared to 24 percent of men.
Boardroom diversity, however, is where men and women showed significant disagreementstarting with the reason why more women arent on boards in the first place.
For example, the survey asked, What do you think is the primary reason that the percentage of women on boards is not increasing?
In response, 35 percent of women said that traditional networks tend to be male-oriented, compared to 21 percent of males who thought so. More women than men also identified lack of networking access between qualified women and boardroom decision-makers19 percent of female respondents, compared to 10 percent of male respondents.
By contrast, 45 percent of men said the lack of women on boards owes to a lack of women in executive rankscompared to 18 percent of women respondents who thought that was the problem.
WomenCorporateDirectors co-chair Henrietta Fore summed up the differences this way in the report: Women place the responsibility squarely on board leadership, while men see it as both a pipeline and a leadership issue.
And at many companies, board diversity is nowhere near the top of the agenda. In 2012, we found that 46 percent of U.S. directors and 57 percent of directors outside the U.S. could not say that seating a diverse representation on the board was a priority for their boards, Bell commented in the study.
The survey also queried directors about the controversial use of quotas to mandate more board diversity. Women were more likely than men both to find quotas effective, and more likely to personally support the use of quotas:
- More than half of all female respondents (51 percent) agree that quotas are an effective tool for increasing diversity in the boardroom, while only a quarter of the men (25 percent) think so.
- Almost 4 in 10 women (39 percent) personally support the use of quotas, versus less than 1 in 5 men (18 percent).
Professor Groysberg attributed the support for quotas among women to the stalled progress of female representation on boards. Although most female directors do not personally support quotas, they might view them as necessary to effect change, he stated in the report.
Among survey respondents, on average, women were older than men when first appointed to a board: 42.1 years old vs. 40.4 years old. Women directors were also less likely to be married (72 percent) than men directors (90 percent), and less likely to have children64 percent of female directors had children, compared to 90 percent of men.
One thing almost everyone could agree on: 93 percent of women and 92 percent of men enjoy serving on boards.